Shortly after 10 a.m. ET on Wednesday, September 4, @SwissMinipeople tweeted a cartoon. IN NEW YORK, ROGER THE SWISS SUPER HERO MUST FLEE! Federer, in tights, says "But I'll be back!" as he's chased out of the first frame by three tennis balls. LUCKILY A NEW SUPER HERO IS HERE TO REPLACE HIM … A superhero in Swiss flag–red superhero body armor! It's IRON STAN! In the cartoon's third frame, Iron Stan has pulled back the face shield of his Swiss flag–red superhero helmet, revealing his cherry nose and patchy stubble (although not, unfortunately, his frosted hair). "No more laughing now," says Iron Stan.
Stanislas Wawrinka, the no. 2 Swiss tennis player in the world, retweeted the cartoon with captions in French. ("Devinez qui a enfilé son armure rouge?") He retweeted a version translated into English. ("No more a Side Kick!") For good measure, he tweeted a link to the cartoon under his own handle.
He is in a good mood. He is playing the best tennis of his life. He wants the world to know it. Wawrinka has always had a gorgeous one-handed backhand; the swing is a quick and smooth unfurling. These days, he's dictating more with his forehand, moving well, and putting some pop on his serve when he needs to. He has a new coach. He has new confidence. He has just beaten Tomas Berdych, the fifth-ranked player. It was an upset, though the two have played tight matches before.
Even in person, Berdych looks computer-generated, his face stretched, his features oddly airbrushed. His eyes are pale, wide-set, and bottomless. His expression is neutral, his frown natural, and his smile, while nice, gives nothing away. He is very tall, 6-foot-5, but unlike other big guys he carries his body easily, as if he were born for it. In the right venue, say, Louis Armstrong Stadium in New York, his size makes him the right size. Berdych looks proportioned to a tennis court. This is also the way he plays, as if his forehand had been programmed. It is easy, textbook, even. He does not lasso his follow-through or liquidly whip anything. He does not skid across the concrete and slide into splits, or stutter and dervish and surprise. He hits the ball fairly flat and with depth, a ball with weight and driving speed. The word you tend to hear about the ball he strikes is clean. He is not an artist or a showman; what he does, or tries to do, is a craft. Tennis is his job. When I rally in my mind, when I imagine tennis, I imagine Tomas Berdych. But Berdych's play on Tuesday lacked imagination. After he took the first set easily, he began to break down. He slammed the ball, but Wawrinka was the one who moved it around.
Wawrinka plays Andy Murray in the quarterfinals today. He can beat Murray. He beat Murray in April, absolutely crushing him in the Monte Carlo Masters, 6-1, 6-2. In fact he has already beaten Murray in the U.S. Open, in 2010's third round. Wawrinka can beat anyone. (Well, not Rafael Nadal.) He nearly knocked Novak Djokovic out of the Australian Open, in one of the most thrilling and high-level matches of the year. That match changed what he thought he could accomplish. The 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 epic would have entered the catalog of unforgettable classics if Wawrinka's name were, say, Roger Federer.
Wawrinka is a little tired of the whole Roger Federer thing. It's not personal. On Wednesday morning, shortly after declaring, via cartoon strip, that he was no more a sidekick, no longer a joke, Wawrinka retweeted a fan's plaintive plea: "the swiss press has to understand that @stanwawrinka has his own career and nobody needs to compare him all the time with RF!"
Last week, Wawrinka was asked by the New York Times if he wished he'd understood his game earlier in his career as well as he does now. What he said surprised me. "No, I don't think so. We can always wish for different things, but I'm really happy with what's happened in my career. I have always tried to fight and always tried to give everything. And after 10 years, I have done more or less a great job and still have a few good years to go."
Stan Wawrinka will never replace Roger Federer. Nor will he ever fully escape from his shadow, not even when Federer drops out of the top 20, not even when Federer never plays another match. Tennis is relentless. Every day, the rounds tick by, and the focus narrows to the favorites. Wawrinka is not among the players predicted to win one major, ever, let alone 17. He is 28 years old. He's streaky, prone to strings of hapless errors. At the wrong moments, he double-faults. His concentration slips — and his temper blows. Unfortunately for us all, he does not have Anna Wintour influencing what he wears. When Wawrinka loses to Tommy Robredo, as he did last month in Cincinnati, nobody blinks back a tear or bats an eye.
Richard Gasquet was once anointed. At the age of 9, he was on the cover of France's Tennis Magazine. As a teenager, he had a one-handed backhand that made you stand up. It was ostentatious in its gaudy swing and its ridiculous power. At the age of 19, he beat Federer. But Gasquet, after such a promising start, became a cautionary tale. He became famous for letting leads slip away, for throwing rackets, for running out of gas, and for testing positive for cocaine after (he claims) kissing a woman in a Miami nightclub.
Gasquet is 27 years old now. His hair is thinning, and he's ditched the backward hat. His shorts have shortened. He looks like a small, middle-aged Frenchman, and he sometimes plays like a small, middle-aged Frenchman in the mood for a nap. In the past few years, he's committed himself to getting in shape, and has worked his way back into the top 10. In the fourth round on Tuesday, though, Gasquet seemed to be in the same old trouble. He was playing Milos Raonic — the leader of the next generation, as Gasquet was once said to be. During the match, Gasquet threw his socks onto the court in disgust after losing a set (because, of course). The match went five sets (because, of course). The score was 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-6 (9), 7-5. Coming into the match, his record in the fourth round of majors was 1-15. One win. Fifteen losses. Astonishingly, this time, Gasquet was the winner.
In the next round, Gasquet took the first two sets from David Ferrer, playing like a vintage Baby Fed. Then Ferrer broke him to start the third set. Everyone knew what was coming. The sound of groans echoed from the grounds in Queens into Manhattan.
Ferrer is a grinder. He is a five-set slog specialist. He's too small to hit anyone off the court, and too fast to be hit off the court himself. He exists to beat players like Gasquet — players who might give the top guys trouble. Then Ferrer always, always, loses meekly to one of the top players himself, almost bowing in deference as he goes. It's almost as if he makes it his personal mission to preserve the status quo.
Naturally, the match between Ferrer and Gasquet went five. But something strange happened. Yet again, Gasquet was the winner.
Mikhail Youzhny salutes when he wins, and it's kind of frightening. He looks like a soldier, or at least like a man who could kill you with his ring finger.1 His head is boxy and closely shaved. Even his smile is a frown. He is a former top-10 player, known for his ingenuity and arsenal. He has pace, touch, can rifle shots into corners, and he has a colonel's intensity. He destroys rackets with impunity. He once smashed his own head in frustration so hard that he bled. But he is 31 now, no longer much of a threat to top players.
Youzhny plays Djokovic in the quarters largely because the Russian is lucky. Lleyton Hewitt knocked out everyone's dark horse favorite, Juan Martin del Potro, barely, in a five-set, four-hour match. Then Youzhny knocked out Hewitt, barely, in a five-set, four-hour match.
Hewitt, 32, has had so many surgeries on his feet that it's a wonder he can walk, let alone play top-level tennis for half the working day. Youzhny and Hewitt hit rallies of 20, 30 shots. They pulled each other into the net. They picked up balls about to fall dead and flicked them over at sharp angles. They both choked when things got tight. Hewitt, the former no. 1, former Grand Slam champion, just choked a little harder. Each of them, somehow, wanted it too much. Maybe it's even harder when you've been there before, once. You know what it takes for a mortal to make it. At one point, Hewitt skidded on the court, scraping his arm. Play had to be halted to stop the bleeding.
Lately, I've been wondering about this golden age of men's tennis — the riveting battles of skill, athleticism, and contrasting styles; the debates about all-time greats; the History with a capital H. I'm starting to think that the danger isn't that we've been spoiled, it's that we've been deprived. When friends ask me who's going to win, I make my dopey predictions. But what I want to say is that I hope the Open will be Bartolied. I hope someone deserving but random will win. Of course, there's very little chance. Come Monday, we'll probably be talking about Murray, Djokovic, or Nadal for the thousandth time — maybe with awe, maybe with elation, but for the thousandth time.
Should Wawrinka be less satisfied with his career? I wonder. It's true that he is rich, he has fans, and he has the respect of other players. Tennis is his job, and he has done it extremely well. It's easy to agree that he should be judged for who he is and for who he is not. But it might be harder than it looks. Tennis is brutal. Players have numbers next to their names.
There is a tendency, I think, to inflate the quality of play in the final two rounds of a major. Every time the top-10 men play five sets, it's "epic." Every time one of them hits an incredible shot, it's extra-incredible. This is understandable. Perhaps it is inevitable. But, what separates the top three from everyone else isn't their ability to hit shots that make your heart beat faster, even if they do it best. They are fitter, more skilled, better balanced. Still, what really separates them is both smaller and bigger than that.
"I am quite an unsure guy on the court," Wawrinka said on Wednesday, after his fourth-round match. But that was changing. He talked about his near-defeat of Djokovic. "For me, it was a loss but a victory inside."
It would be crazy, and great, if Iron Stan won the tournament. I hope that spectacular choke-artist, Richard Gasquet, proves everyone wrong. I'd even smile at a Youzhny salute. I'd like, for a moment, to look past Nadal, Murray, and Djokovic. There's a thin line between dominance and tyranny.
A few can play in order to win majors. The others have to play for other reasons. I'd like to watch Federer play at 35, losing in the second round, but still — every once in a while — curling that forehand into the far corner. I'd like to see whether Berdych can pound forehand winners for seven matches in a row. It would be awesome if Ferrer ran through a top player — leapt the net and bowled him over. I want to see Hewitt playing until they scrape his skin and gristle off the court.
Berdych, Hewitt, and Ferrer are already gone. By today's end, chances are good that Wawrinka and Youzhny will have been knocked out, too. Gasquet is into the semis, but I'd be shocked to see him in the final. But all of them have surprised me. All of them seem to have surprised themselves. What matters is winning, of course — but not just the tournament. Also the match, the game, the point, the moment. Maybe these guys take what victories they can. And maybe that's as real as it gets.