To watch Stan Wawrinka dispatch Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final last month was to see the physical toll the sport can take. Both men looked dazed and drenched in the heat of late-summer New York City, and Djokovic cramped severely and took an injury timeout for a blistered, bloodied toe. But the mental torture was infinitely worse, according to Wawrinka’s account of a pre-match anxiety attack that reduced him to tears.
This weekend he offered Swiss newspaper Le Matin Dimanche an uncommonly candid interview about his “crise de stress” and explained his solution: leaning into the physical pain to drown out his fatigued mind. “Je me suis fait mal,” he said—“I hurt myself.” You can find the piece in its original French here, or read an English translation by the Canadian sportswriter Stephanie Myles.
While plenty of athletes openly discuss their physical woes, it’s rarer to see an elite athlete address mental ones, especially just weeks later. Clearly this reads less like a rosy retrospective and more like a guy revisiting emotions that are still raw and confusing to him, and sharing the coping mechanism that got him through it. Of course, Wawrinka anticipates the most likely reading of his words with his joke kicker.
Aside from disarming honesty, this piece also offers a potential partial explanation for why Wawrinka has only started living up to his obvious physical potential in this late phase of his tennis career: Much of the work these players need to do is purely mental. While his body surely may have been more limber earlier in his career, at age 31, the mental stuff has finally begun to click for the No.3 ranked Wawrinka—and even then, not without monstrous effort.