The men’s final contained the single most entertaining point of the U.S. Open—the only point Stan Wawrinka won in the first set tiebreak against Novak Djokovic, before taking the next three sets and the trophy.
This final was played on a New York City day warm enough to send a pneumonitic Hillary Clinton into a stumbling swoon, and by the end of the match, a cramping, blister-ridden Djokovic didn’t look much better for wear. Blame his opponent: it’s hard to overstate how heavy a ball Wawrinka hits, all slathered in topspin and pace. Returning that must feel like chasing down and swatting back a cannonball.
We see the first signs that that pace and depth are getting to Djokovic at 0:05 in the above video, when Wawrinka wallops a forehand deep and his opponent has to block with an gawky, defensive swipe. From there, Wawrinka slowly wrests away control of the point until 0:17, where he rips a crosscourt backhand that’d would’ve been a clean winner against opponents who aren’t human-sized Gumby. Just look at the improbable recoveries Djokovic makes over the next few shots in the rally—he’s such a weird, flexible defender, blessed with the raw foot speed and elastic ankles to sprint and skid across stretches of court, the clever hands to block and improvise defense in all kinds of strange situations.
Rewind that a bit: skid. Think back to the last time you walked on a tennis hardcourt, its surface coated in acrylic paint and sand, offering plenty of friction. Envision what it’d be like to cut a full-speed run and then slide three feet on that, while wearing rubber-soled sneakers. This is not gliding across linoleum in tube socks. (Unsurprising, then, that his toes begged for this treatment by the end.) Djokovic put his body at stake and made Wawrinka earn this point, and the title, by out-rallying the very guy who seems physically engineered for long rallies.
By sealing his third major in the last two years, Wawrinka now elbows his way into the cabal often called the Big Four, the guys you could safely expect to win any given Slam: Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Federer. And his ascent has often been packaged in the pat narrative of “humble, disheveled Stan fights through the legend of his countryman and becomes a champion in his own right.” Some have begged for more nuance:
Hopefully now that he’s cemented his status among the elite, we can begin to complicate that storyline.