With his index finger pointing to his temple, it was a gesture that came to define the 2016 US Open.
Once considered too mentally fragile to win on the biggest stage, Stan Wawrinka believes his psychological toughness helped him clinch his first US Open title and third grand slam crown at an engrossed Flushing Meadows on Sunday.
So long in the shadow of his fellow Swiss and 17-time grand slam winner Roger Federer, Wawrinka made the gesture several times during his 6-7 (1-7), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 victory over defending champion Novak Djokovic.
“It started in the Australian Open when I beat Novak (in the quarters) for the first time,” Wawrinka said about the gesture during an interview with CNN’s James Blake at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York.
“It just came like that. I never try to think what I am going to do. You can see after the match, when I don’t do anything, because I am completely empty and dead and all the emotions coming.”
Saving match point
It was in January 2014 that Wawrinka beat Djokovic to reach the Australian Open semifinals.
“This for me is really when I started to be tough with myself,” said Wawrinka, who also overpowered Djokovic in the finals of Roland Garros last year. “I know if I want to have a chance to beat the top players, I need to be mentally ready for that.” The third-seeded Swiss showed his mental strength several times across the last fortnight.
Down match point in the fourth-set tie-break against Briton Dan Evans in the third round, Wawrinka slammed down a big serve and won the point with a crisp volley. He ended up winning in five sets.
“I won that match and little by little, I started to play better each match,” Wawrinka said.
“Saving match point, you have be a little bit lucky,” said the Swiss after adding the US Open to his 2014 Australian Open and 2015 French Open titles.
“But I was happy with what I was doing, I was fighting, staying positive, trying to find a way.”
After getting past Evans at Flushing Meadows, Wawrinka beat 2009 winner Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals and 2014 finalist Kei Nishikori in the semifinals as the heat and humidity soared in New York in the tournament’s second week.
“This was the most difficult slam I ever played,” Wawrinka said. “Physically, mentally, we had some tough conditions in the last few days.”
The 31-year-old Wawrinka is the oldest U.S. Open men’s champion since Ken Rosewall was 35 in 1970. Yet he already had gained the upper hand by the time No. 1 Djokovic clutched at his upper left leg and grimaced after missing a forehand while getting broken early in the fourth set. From there, Djokovic briefly began conceding points, showing little of the fight he’s so famous for.
Trailing 3-1 in the fourth set, Djokovic was granted the unusual chance to have a medical timeout at a time other than a changeover. He removed both shoes and socks so a trainer could help him out with what appeared to be blisters on toes.
Wawrinka complained to the chair umpire about the 6-minute break, and Djokovic looked over and apologized. When they resumed, Djokovic earned three break points, but Wawrinka held for 4-1. That continued a pattern that carried throughout: Djokovic, as good a returner as there is in the game now, certainly, and perhaps ever managed to convert only 3 of 17 break chances.
Djokovic started limping later and received more toe treatment at the changeover before he served down 5-2 in the fourth.
Wawrinka has won only five of 24 career meetings against Djokovic, but has now beaten the 12-time major champion on the way to each of his own Grand Slam titles, including in the 2014 Australian Open quarterfinals and 2015 French Open final.