INTERVIEW: Wawrinka holds high hopes as he begins 2016 season

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  • Aiming high: Stan Wawrinka.

    In a season that was predominantly monopolised by one man – Novak Djokovic – it was Stan Wawrinka who provided arguably the most explosive moment of the year when he overpowered the world No. 1, handing him his only grand slam defeat of 2015, to win the French Open crown.
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    Wawrinka calls it the best match he ever played and it earned him a second major trophy, much to the Swiss’ own surprise.

    You see Wawrinka never fathomed he would win one major, let alone two, but his one-step-at-a-time approach has taken beyond his wildest dreams and he now sits comfortably amongst the sport’s elite, propped at No4 in the world and ready for a new season.

    “I think everything as a tennis player now is better from myself. All the puzzle is right together,” Wawrinka told Sport360 ahead of his participation at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi this weekend, where he takes on either Kevin Anderson or Milos Raonic in the semi-finals on Friday.

    “I still have ups and downs, I still have some matches I lose, but I know that when I’m fit, when I play well, when I’m confident, I can stay with the top guys and I can beat them, especially at grand slams where I can push them physically and mentally.”

    This wasn’t always how Wawrinka felt about himself, but at 30 years of age, he finally knows he can produce the goods when it matters the most – a recent development that was triggered by a five-set Australian Open loss to Djokovic in 2013.

    “Even though I lost that one, even though it was difficult. That match I didn’t have the feeling like I had before in the big matches against the top guys that I failed. That match I had the feeling ‘I gave everything, I was that close to win, I lost it, but not because I failed and I went mentally down’,” he recalls.

    “At that moment I was like ‘okay, he’s the No1, he’s far away ahead of everybody, but you’re there, if you keep working hard, you’re going to have your chance, stay strong with yourself’.”

    That track of thought led him to his two grand slam triumphs and he acts like a man who has conquered his demons more often than not nowadays on the court.

    But 2015 provided a new kind of challenge for him. Long gone are the days where Wawrinka was referred to as ‘the other Swiss who is not named Roger Federer’. He was big time and people wanted to talk about him, not just his tennis but also his personal life.

    News about his divorce broke earlier in the season and his ex-wife Ilham made a public statement about it following Wawrinka’s announcement that they were separating. A few weeks later, an article was published referencing his personal life at the start of the French Open on the grand slam’s official website. It was taken down a few hours later.

    The drama would not cease as world No. 30 Nick Kyrgios decided to make an inappropriate comment regarding Wawrinka’s tennis-playing girlfriend on court during a match in Montreal.

    In Wawrinka’s own words, this year was one “big mess” but he’s proud with how he dealt with it.

    “It was tough especially that I don’t like to talk about my private life in general. I always put that private life away. So yeah, this year it was quite a big mess, let’s put it that way,” he concedes.

    “I’m trying to be as strong as possible and as focused as I can on my tennis. On the court I’m alone, so if I can close all the windows when I’m on the court, there is even thoughts – you can have distractions outside or problems, the better you deal with that, the better you will play. But for sure with all the things that happened this year it wasn’t easy and I’m even more happy the way I dealt with it on the court and the results I had all the year.”

    To top it all off, Wawrinka capped the year by playing in the IPTL on the same team that included Kyrgios. The world No4 initially wasn’t scheduled to play because “they don’t have space for ever top player because there are only a few teams and for me it’s too long to play the full one, so that was clear, I’m not going to take that risk, not to have any preparation, not to have any rest.”

    But when Djokovic pulled out of the event, Wawrinka took his place in the last leg of the league, in Singapore, and shared a team and a bench with Kyrgios, who never apologised to him directly and had received a suspended ban from the ATP for his actions.

    “At the end you’re doing your job and that’s it. Nick is a tennis player, I’m a tennis player, we’re going to be around for a while, every tournament or whatever. At the end I think everything went well and that’s it,” explains Wawrinka.

    He says the overall experience in the IPTL was great and that there were “zero problems” with Kyrgios there, although they had no conversation to clear the air.

    “The thing is, I don’t forget (what he did) that’s for sure. But then again it was my choice, I accept it and go to Singapore and he’s on the team or I don’t, and I don’t go simply. Again at the end we had zero problem there. It’s not like we’re going to go to dinner every night together but we had no problem, we played on the same team, he was there to cheer me on because I was playing and that was okay,” said Wawrinka.

    Looking ahead to 2016, Wawrinka says he’s focusing on the things that he can control.

    “My goal is to be the best player I can and to have no regrets when I stop playing tennis,” he states.

    “The priority for me is to practice well, to do the best schedule I can and to give myself the chance to be fit and ready for every tournament. I’m not good enough to say my priorities are the grand slams so I want to play well in the grand slams. No. I know that if I want to play in the slams I need all the tournaments before to try to do my best.”

    Like every player, Wawrinka is looking forward to the Olympics but is unsure how many events he’ll play.

    He needs to give it a lot of thought to make sure he schedules it the right way to get the best out of the whole experience.

    “To play singles, doubles and mixed doubles, if you win a few matches in all three, it’s tough. So I need to think, to see what I want, what I’ll be happy with. It’s not only about winning and losing it’s also about enjoying. The Olympics it’s also about the experience, that’s why I want to stay in the village, that’s why I want to do all that again,” he added.

    Wawrinka has one Olympic gold medal to his name which he won with Federer in doubles in Beijing 2008.

    Federer, at 34, is ranked No3 in the world and is stunning the universe with how well he is playing at this stage in his career. Wawrinka remains in awe of his good friend and countryman.

    “I’m surprised because he’s doing it, but not because it’s him. He’s always pushing the limit, in everything, in records, in the way he’s playing, so it’s amazing to see the way he’s playing. Hopefully I can play a few more years at my top,” says Wawrinka.

    “You’re not trying to do the same because it’s impossible to copy him, he’s just too far away in front of everybody, but it’s inspiring to see that at 34 he can be at his top. Like last year he was moving, he was playing amazing at the US Open. It can give you some little thought that it means it’s possible, at my level and my game and everything, that means it’s possible to play longer.”

    Another player Wawrinka reserves high praise for is Rafael Nadal. In a year where the Spaniard struggled greatly on the court, Wawrinka faced off with him four times and they split those meetings 2-2.

    On whether Nadal will ever get back to his best, Wawrinka said: “For sure knowing him, the champion he is, he’s going to find a solution to be at the top again.”

    Nadal’s once ferocious forehand appears to some like it has lost its sting but Wawrinka feels tennis today is not the same as it was five, six years ago.

    “Yes (his forehand changed) a little bit, but so has everybody’s. It was slower (before), and the balls, you could play more rallies. I would love to watch a match of Rafa and Roger five, six years ago it was almost different tennis. Let’s see. I think Rafa knows what he needs, I think he’s working for it, he’s going to get it or not? We’ll see,” says the Swiss No. 2.