The Underdog – Australian Open men’s final preview
by Johan Kriek @johankriek
The 2014 Australian Open has been a very interesting one. We saw good players make a big push and reached higher levels with their games and their results show. Players like Cibulkova and Wawrinka have been near the very top of the rankings but with hard work, some new direction with new coaches and focus on mental training, they have pushed themselves very hard and reached new levels for themselves. I find it very refreshing. It shows that hard work pays off….
About 25 years ago I was the oldest player in the Australian Open, at almost 31 years of age. This year, there were 24 players in the draw age 30 years old or older. It shows that age in tennis is meaningless, insofar as a 30 year old can play even better than in their 20’s. Just look at Agassi and how well he played into his 30’s.
So we eagerly await the men’s finals between overwhelming favorite Rafael Nadal and Swiss Stanislav Wawrinka. Nadal is the overwhelming favorite. He is the #1 player in the world, has 13 majors under his belt, going for his 14th major which will equal Pete Sampras at 14, all this by age 27! A remarkable achievement already!
Stan Wawrinka or as people call him “Stanimal” has no major titles yet. He has had incredible 5 setters at the Australian Open, the US Open, with heartbreaking results. The match he played against Djokovic last year was one of the hardest matches Djokovic has played in his career and one would think that Stan will never be able to shake “the monkey” of losing tight 5 setters. But this year he has “changed”! Wawrinka never gave up on his burning desire to reach another level. He has been knocking “on the door” of the majors now for a couple of years and I hope he continues to believe he can do it and be smart out there and stay within himself and do not “overtry” but enjoy the moment, flow with it and play his heart out. Focus on “execution” rather than “score” and magic can happen.
Let’s look at some of the “underdog” finals in majors over the years. I will not write about all of them but a couple vivid ones that stood out in my book.
Jimmy Connors played Arthur Ashe in the finals of Wimbledon in the early 70’s. Connors was #1 in the world, was the overwhelming favorite to beat Ashe. In fact the bookies touted Connors at 200-1 to win. And yet, Ashe went into that match with a clear game plan, stuck with it, no matter how many passing shots came by him. He actually beat Connors easily, mostly by mentally surprising Connors and with his tactics. Ashe won the Wimbledon title.
In my own career I had a “confirmation” that I had arrived and can compete with the top dogs after winning my second Australian Open in 1982 I was in the finals of the US National Indoor Championships in Memphis TN a few months later facing then #1 John McEnroe in the finals. I went into that match with a clear head, a solid game plan and focused on my execution of it with confidence, no matter what happens. I beat McEnroe 6-4 in the third on national television to win the title.
Regardless of the pundits saying the top did not play the Australian Open and such, I knew what kind of tennis I was playing at that time and had numerous other wins over McEnroe and Connors following those events.
Wawrinka has an opportunity today to prove to the world that he has “arrived” on the big stage. He has shown the world that he can and will beat the best in the world. A couple of things that would be very important for him is to get a high percentage of first serves in. Get as many “free points” from his serve. Stay with Nadal in the rallies and pounce on any and all opportunities to attack and finish at the net. He needs to open up the backhand side of Nadal by hitting very hard cross court backhands (Stan’s backhand is better than Federer’s) and the go hard to the backhand corner and pounce. If Stan stays pinned in the back court, it will be a long day at the office and he will most likely lose, unless he can sustain a very big game for hours which imho is impossible to do against Nadal. Nadal will change nothing, since he knows he is 12-0 vs Wawrinka in sets. So it is really up to Wawrinka to “take the initiative”.
I will be glued to the tv…..with three coffees!…..:)