For the first time since the ATP rankings were introduced in 1973, the top five players are all aged 30 or above.
Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer have all crossed that age milestone. They’re all still winning and are all real contenders for the big titles.
Wawrinka, who is 32, is the late-bloomer of the bunch. He won his first of three Grand Slams when he was 28 and is still considered a bit of an outsider to the so-called ‘Big Four’, despite the fact that he has claimed the same number of majors as Murray. Their resumes are still fairly uneven.
Wawrinka was the last of them to arrive to the party and he actually sees it as an advantage right now.
“The thing is, for me I feel great. I feel young at that level. I’ve been playing for so many years but during 10 years I was like more between 10 to 20 (in the rankings). Since four years now I’m in the top 10 so I still feel young and fresh because everything is a little bit new, so I feel great,” the 2015 Roland Garros champion told Sport360 ahead of his opener against Josef Kovalik on Tuesday.
“I feel a lot of motivation to try to push myself. I know I’m getting older so I need to be careful with many things but at the same I want to push the maximum I can do in my career.”
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The Swiss world No3 may be one of the big guns now, but he says he always tries to stay grounded and linked to his roots.
“I grew up in a farm, I was living there was I was young. I think it was great for myself and my family, my brother also to live there, also with some handicapped persons, so I know where I come from. I think it helped me for so many things in my career but also in my life,” says Wawrinka.
But no matter how much he may resist it, his life has definitely changed every since he started beating world No1s in Grand Slam finals.
He is regarded differently on the court by his peers, and off it, he finds pictures of himself and his tennis-playing girlfriend Donna Vekic in tabloids while enjoying some R&R on the beach.
“For sure that’s not the best part but that’s part of the game,” he says of becoming the subject of interest for the paparazzi. “It’s happening since I won some Grand Slams, for sure, because then you become a little more famous and people want to know more about you.”
And tennis-wise, has life changed much since 2014?
“Yes, for sure there’s a big difference. When you become a Grand Slam champion and in the top five for sure people see you differently. They see you as a better tennis player, more people come to watch, more people come to see what’s happening, what you’re doing. It’s a completely different life as a tennis player,” he explains.
The reigning US Open champion had a strong start to his 2017 season, making the semis at the Australian Open and the final in Indian Wells. Both times he lost to his fellow Swiss Federer, who at 35, is back to his best, winning majors and Masters 1000s like it’s 2006.
Nadal has also rediscovered his form and currently leads the ATP Race to London standings. They are ageing champions whose magic does not wane.
None of this surprises Wawrinka.
“For me, if you look, we have ‘Big Four’ players, they’ve been winning every single tournament for more than 10 years. As long as they’re still playing, they’re going to fight and play to win big titles,” says Wawrinka.
“I don’t see them playing and being 20 or 30 in the world and they keep playing, because they’ve been there for so many years. So you know, you can see with Rafa, he had so many injuries, he always came back at his top level. Now he’s back at the top of the top, Roger also… so I think it’s a chance for us to play with those amazing champions.”
Nadal is targeting a mythical 10th Roland Garros title this fortnight in Paris. The Spaniard’s attempt last year to achieve that feat was halted by a wrist injury that forced him to withdraw from the tournament ahead of his third round.
Many people wrote off Nadal, who hasn’t won a Grand Slam in three years, but Wawrinka never doubted the 14-time major champion.
“I’ve known Rafa since he was young, I saw him winning time after time. He had so many injuries but he always came back, since he was really young. I think he missed the first Roland Garros he was supposed to play because of a foot injury. And the next year he played his first French Open and won it,” said Wawrinka.
“So I never thought he would be out or less competitive because we all know that when he comes back, fit and ready, he’s tough to beat.”
Wawrinka’s clay season did not start well, with early losses in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome but he picked up the pace in Geneva last week, winning his home title on the eve of the French Open. Playing his home event in the week leading up to Roland Garros has gone well for Wawrinka in the past. He says it has helped him not get too wrapped up in Paris during the build-up.
“I think this year’s edition (of the Geneva tournament) was a little different. I think I had much more support. I had a lot of supporters for each match, really, which meant more emotion, also,” said Wawrinka in his pre-Roland Garros press conference on Monday.
“The beginning, early season on clay was not good. It really had a negative impact on my confidence. So being able to win matches was very important. It sort of was able to create some reverse thrust and build confidence.”
When asked about his epic final victory over Djokovic that won him the 2015 French Open, Wawrinka said: “It was one of the best, for sure. I think 2015 French Open was probably the tournament I played the best tennis. I was playing really strong, really heavy. I was feeling really good with my tennis.”
Rallying with Stan
Which shots would you take from his rivals if he could?
Maybe I take the return of Novak, backhand of Novak, I take Roger’s forehand, I take Rafa’s fitness, and maybe Roger’s serve.
You wouldn’t keep your backhand?
Two-handed backhand is better for the return.
What do you make of all the Maria Sharapova wildcard drama?
I think now she’s back on tour, I think she’s been an amazing champion, winning so many big titles, I think the focus was a little bit too much about asking ‘does she deserve a wildcard or not’. It’s not the player who’s going to decide who is going to get a wildcard or not at the end of the day, it’s the tournament. And I think the fans are really happy to see her back so it can only be only good for the WTA tour.