Australian Open 2014: Wawrinka awaits Federer-Nadal winner in finals

Lucas Dawson

On the brink of his 29th birthday, Stan Wawrinka reached his first slam final with a four-set slog of a win over Tomas Berdych.

For most of his career, Stan Wawrinka has been The Other Guy From Switzerland. He was a steady, top-16 level player; from late-2007 through 2012, he reached the fourth round of a slam 10 times and reached two quarterfinals (2010 U.S. Open, 2011 Australian Open). Warinka wasn't incredibly consistent -- washed among those solid slam showings were five first- or second-round exits -- and he wasn't a challenge to tennis' upper tier, but he was putting the pieces of a solid career together.

In 2008, an unexpectedly great showing in the Rome Masters vaulted Wawrinka from 24th in the world to 10th, but while he would remain in the top 10 through October, he would spend most of the next five years between about 13th and 27th in the rankings. As he advanced into his late-20s, that appeared to be his lot in life.

But then he stretched Novak Djokovic deep into the fifth sets in both the Australian Open fourth round and U.S. Open semifinals in 2013. And then he reached the finals of the Madrid Masters and the quarterfinals at the French Open. He vaulted to a career-high eighth in the world late in the year. And in Melbourne, on the verge of his 29th birthday, Stan Wawrinka not only beat Djokovic but also reached his first slam final, defeating Tomas Berdych in four service-heavy sets, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6.

Styles make fights, and while Wawrinka and Djokkovic have combined for some flashy, grueling tennis in the last 53 weeks or so, Wawrinka-Berdych was like most Berdych matches. Berdych is a late-'90s throwback of sorts, relying on a big serve and punishing groundstrokes to win quick points and wear you down mentally. He is a Punch Out character -- you know what you have to do to beat him, but if you show weakness, or if your attention wanes, you're down two sets. Berdych has defeated Roger Federer six times and has a winning record (6-4) over Andy Murray.

Berdych is Goran Ivanisevic 2.0 and has been in the ATP top -0 since July 2010. He is predictable but powerful, less than aesthetic but effective. Against Wawrinka, he served as well as ever, but after dictating the tempo most of the way, he faltered late in both the third and fourth sets. Wawrinka, whose decision-making has not always been elite, played steadier tennis and rather easily handled the last two tie-breakers to take the win.

Even with Roger Federer's strong showing in Melbourne, the odds are good that Stan Wawrinka will be the highest-ranked Swiss player in the world when the next ATP rankings are released.

Late-career surges are becoming more common on the ATP tour as tennis gets more physical and mature. A 30-year old (or close to it) making a deep run in a slam is far more common than a teenager doing so, and perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that Wawrinka is putting the pieces together so late in his career. But it still strikes as a redemption story of sorts, a change of pace to the dominance of tennis' big four. That a Swiss man made the finals of a slam is certainly not a new development; that we could have TWO Swiss men in the finals is a different story.

(And because this is a happy story, we'll ignore for now the fact that Wawrinka is 1-25 lifetime against Federer and Rafael Nadal, one of whom he will play in the next round.)

No. 33

Get three balls from the ball boy, send one back. Put one in your pocket. Dribble the other one with your racket. Pick your underwear. Touch both eyebrows, tuck your hair behind your face, send your opponent off the court with your underrated kick serve.

Everything is a routine for Rafael Nadal. He establishes order in everything he does, from his serve, to his between-point routines, to his in-point "If, then" style of tennis. Both he and his opponent know what he's going to do on the court, and the opponent can rarely do anything about it.

The order that Nadal brings to tennis long ago became the antidote to Roger Federer's unpredictable, more aesthetically magnificent brand of play. Over the span of 10 slams, from 2005 Wimbledon through the 2007 U.S. Open, only Nadal beat Federer in a slam; Fed won eight of those 10 and lost two French Open finals. He fell to Nadal in the French Open and Wimbledon finals in 2008, in the Aussie Open finals in 2009, and again in the French Open finals in 2011. If Nadal didn't exist, Federer would have about 22-25 slam titles right now and every conceivable claim to "Best Tennis Player Ever."

Nadal does exist, however, and has beaten Federer 22 of 32 times. Federer won two of three against Nadal from late-2011 into 2012, as Nadal was beginning to deal with some pretty serious knee issues. Nadal struck back with four wins in 2013 (he took eight of nine sets) as Federer was dealing with some combination of back problems, age, and general confidence issues.

Now, with Nadal back to No. 1 in the world and Federer surging with a healthy back and a new, bigger racquet, the two meet for the 33rd time. The lifetime series skews in Nadal's favor because of his 13-2 record against Federer on clay; on hard courts, Nadal leads by only an 8-6 margin.

Nadal's impossible topspin forehands don't skip into the stratosphere on hard courts like it does on clay, and it offers Federer a few more opportunities to stay inside the court and get aggressive. The newest version of Federer, with better fitness, the 98-inch racquet, and serve-and-volley king Stefan Edberg coaching him, was aggressive and confident against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray in the fourth round and quarterfinals, respectively. Both of those players are also coming off of 2013 injuries, but Federer kept them flat-footed and passive, responding to what he was doing more than they were forced to last year.

Nadal is the clear favorite here, and for any number of reasons: age, series record, etc. Plus, Federer's bad habits did emerge in the last couple of sets against Murray. Federer has faltered frequently on break points in recent years, playing passive, just-get-the-ball-in tennis in key moments, and it cost him dearly. If not for Murray's own back stiffness, the Scotsman probably would have taken Federer to a fifth set. If the less aggressive, less physical Federer shows up for too long against Nadal, he'll get run off the court. But his recent play, combined with Nadal's relative struggles in recent rounds against Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov -- he only dropped one set but was taken to four tie-breakers -- give Federer fans hope. Nadal should win, but Federer has his best chance since 2012 to take down the World No. 1.

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