“He’s laughing, he’s an asshole,” said Stan Wawrinka, clutching a runner-up trophy, crying, and looking at Roger Federer, who was, yes, laughing. That’s a playful jab between guys who go way back, ever since Federer came to hit with teenage Stan at the national tennis center in their native Switzerland, but surely there was a kernel of real emotion here. If you’d run into a brick wall, over and over again, losing 20 out of the 23 meetings—this time in the finals at Indian Wells—how would you feel about the wall?
Late-blooming Stan honed his one-handed backhand into one of the premier offensive weapons in the game, and won himself a few Slams with it. So what did he think when the guy four years his elder, seemingly on his way out of the game, suddenly fashioned himself an even better one? What does Stan, who is always endearingly disheveled, think when he plays this laughing, limber tennis sprite, who’s now beaten him twice en route to the year’s two biggest titles?
Wawrinka served up a gracious quote—“I’ve lost some tough ones against you, but when you played the final in Australia, I was your biggest fan”—but yeah, it probably sucks.
To Wawrinka’s credit, he fought harder than most. Federer didn’t lose a single set the entire tournament, and thanks to his untouchable serve, had faced only one break point up until this match. Wawrinka got a break to open up the second set! It didn’t last long, of course, with Federer equalizing at 3-3, but you’ve got to celebrate the little victories. Because the big victory is going to be Federer’s—here, maybe this next week in Miami, and for the foreseeable future. Sunday’s final was packed with the usual offensive Federer repertoire: rip the winner when you see one (well before anyone else sees one), but mostly just hit your spots on serve, keep pressing forward, finesse those soft volleys, and don’t give your foe any time to think.
Compared to his fourth-round rout of Rafael Nadal, Federer played at a slightly less breakneck, aggressive clip, probably because the slower-moving Wawrinka doesn’t demand the same high-risk, paint-the-lines play. In the final, Federer let the points run a little longer and dominated the mid-length exchanges, showcasing some clever defense to recover from Wawrinka’s powerful groundstrokes. Here’s a sample of that:
Though he hit a handful of the usual jaw-dropping, highlight reel shots in the match, one that caught my eye was this relatively obscure backhand at 0:06 above. Wawrinka had all day to set up on this favorite shot, and he sent a heavy one kicking up high to Federer’s backhand—precisely the sort of ball that would have irked him in years past. But instead of slicing it and slowing things down, Federer just rips it back, cross-court and impossibly deep into the corner. Look how far that shot drags Wawrinka away from the center of the court. It’s that shot right there, that topspin backhand in lieu of a pace-sapping slice, that lets him pivot from defense to offense, and from there it’s merely a matter of time until Federer lures out an error, working Wawrinka around the baseline.
It’s still uncanny how Federer can take a point that seems beyond hope and somehow wrest it back onto his terms, over the course of two strokes. But that has always been his gift, even as he discovers new tricks to play around with. Tennis’s resurgent “asshole”—who is of course just a walking dad joke and not really an asshole at all—now rises to the No. 6 ranking with this title, outpacing his own ambitious comeback hopes to be top-eight by Wimbledon. And if he extends this success through the spring clay season and to Roland Garros, maybe there will be another friendly insult waiting for him, from another familiar antagonist.