Rohit at Australian Open: Wawrinka a changed man in search of a miracle
Persist. Sweat. Evolve. Reinvent. If four words define an Open, these might qualify. Here, in a Melbourne January, was further proof that talent cannot stand still, risk must be taken and second chances do exist.
Li Na, 31, altered her grip on her serve and her thinking on court. Stan Wawrinka, 28, has laced his game with a sterner aggression and looks a refreshed player. Roger Federer, 32, has healed his body and courted the net and looks relatively sharper. Ana Ivanovic discovered a newer version of self-belief and Dominka Cibulkova has re-found her finest self five years after a French Open semi-final.
Change for the athlete, who is a creature of faithful routine, requires faith and warrants courage. Often the technique they use and style they adopt has worked well enough. Yet risk lies at the heart of greatness. Li explained this perfectly when she said, after years on the tour: "Everybody know what exactly you play on the court. Of course, if I didn't change I can keep in the top 10, top 20, but I cannot be the best in the world.
"So I really want to push myself to change a little bit, to see. It's very tough to thinking first because if you change maybe you lose old thing. How you say, I still trust myself, trust Carlos. I believe after change is help for me."
Change was in the draw. Of the four men's and women's finalists from 2013, only Li Na made the grade again. Change was in Grigor Dimitrov's development and under his relentless new taskmaster, Roger Rasheed, a renewed strength and purpose is evident. Change was in Kei Nishikori's belligerence of stroke-play, in the emergence of two young Australians, Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, and in Novak Djokovic's marginal lack of fluency.
If anything, two things did not change. The weather in Melbourne where the heat some days is like a suffocating blanket. And Rafael Nadal, who continues to smother people with speed and spin. The first will not affect Wawrinka in Sunday's final, the second most certainly will.
Statistics, on first view, tell us nothing will change when Nadal meets Wawrinka. In 12 meetings with the Spaniard, the Swiss has not won a set. Yet look closely at the numbers and there is a hint of change. In their last meeting at the 2013 ATP World Tour finals, the Swiss lost 6-7, 6-7 to Nadal. Close. As Wawrinka said on Saturday morning: "I did some good match last year against him. I find few things that I will try tomorrow."
The Swiss will also know that numbers cannot imprison him forever. After all, he had lost 14 times consecutively to Novak Djokovic before he felled him here. "Just that fact that I am always trying and I always think that I can change all the statistic, that's positive."
Under coach Magnus Norman, an obtrusive fellow who was the only one still sitting quietly when his pupil toppled Tomas Berdych in the semis, Wawrinka has shed his passive skin and become a smart gambler. Said the player of his coach: "He always wants more," and then added, "I'm playing fast from the baseline, trying to always be aggressive. So I take a lot of risks sometimes and so it's important to be be really fresh and relaxed and in my head."
Fresh, he is, for he will have had two rest days and Nadal one. Tactics, he knows, for he said, "I know what I have to do. I have to play aggressive, serve really well and trying to always push him". To know is not enough, one must do. To do against Nadal is, alas, still not always enough.
The crowd will be with Wawrinka for he is a charming, unpretentious fellow and anyway this is a land with a love for the underdog. But to snatch a trophy from Nadal will require a miracle tennis has not seen for a while. In 2009, Juan Martin del Potro defeated a fluent Roger Federer in the US Open final and in 2000 Marat Safin manhandled Pete Sampras in the final at the same Open. But perhaps we must travel back to Arthur Ashe's upset of Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon 1975 to find a fitting comparison.
Wawrinka and Nadal both said they are "good friends", but the Spaniard is not given to mercy on court. Nor is he predisposed to panic. He knows his job and he does it repeatedly. Hit. Run. Towel. Run. Hit. There is almost a simplicity to his play but also a bewilderment. The faster he runs, the greater acreage of court he covers, the more you wonder: he can do this on wounded knees? Dear God. And so, as with the first reinvented Swiss, he remains a probable nightmare for the second.