Tennis: Wawrinka's mantra is to 'fail better'

Stan Wawrinka in action against Roger Federer during the opening day of the International Premier Tennis League in Singapore.
Stan Wawrinka in action against Roger Federer during the opening day of the International Premier Tennis League in Singapore.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

No athlete sets out to fail, yet every day, before each serve and every time he sets himself up for a forehand return, Stan Wawrinka sees that very word thrice.

Inked across the 30-year-old's left forearm and clearly visible as he sat across from The Straits Times yesterday at the Singapore Indoor Stadium are the words of Irish writer Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

It is a philosophy that the world No. 4 lives by - whether in life or on court - and a mantra that has led him to Grand Slam success twice since getting the tattoo in 2013.

In a men's tennis scene that has for so long been dominated by the "Big Four" - Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal - Wawrinka put himself in the conversation when he beat Nadal last year at the Australian Open to win his first Grand Slam.

He then stunned the world - and Djokovic - when he stood in the Serb's way of a career Grand Slam at the French Open this year.

However, for Wawrinka, in town as the marquee player of the International Premier Tennis League's OUE Singapore Slammers, the aim was never to win a major title - only to improve shot by shot, match after match.

"I never put a goal to win a Grand Slam," he said yesterday. "It was always to be a better tennis player, and see what happens.

"I never dreamt of winning a Grand Slam because I thought it would be too difficult with those guys," he admitted.

Indeed, the Swiss simply sought to "fail better" each time he steps onto court, even if it is to play a match few expect him to win.

Languishing outside the top 20 just three years ago, a move to partner coach Magnus Norman in 2013 started to put the Lausanne native on the road to a breakthrough.

"It was my time," Wawrinka said.

"It was my time to be at my top, and I'm really happy to have reached that level."

In lifting his first Grand Slam trophy at the Australian Open, he "failed better" - it was the first time in 13 meetings with Nadal that the Swiss emerged the victor. En route to meeting the Spaniard in Melbourne, Wawrinka also beat Djokovic to end a 14-match, seven-year losing streak against the Serb.

Even that sublime victory in the French Open final this year, described by Wawrinka himself as "the best" match of his career, was part of a learning journey - and just the second time in their last 18 meetings that he had had the better of Djokovic.

At a time when most find it near impossible to beat the world No. 1 over five sets, Wawrinka has handed Djokovic two of his last four losses at Grand Slams. Still, the Swiss shrugs it off and plays it down.

He said: "When I play my top game, I have a game that he (Djokovic) doesn't really enjoy.

"He sometimes struggles when I play my best tennis because I can play heavy, big strokes from both sides and push him back. But even with that, he's beaten me so many times so it's a tough challenge."

He simply learns along the way, from wins - now as a two-time Grand Slam champion - as much as from setbacks.

"You learn when you lose, and you learn when you win," he said.

"You take some confidence from winning, you find some things that you did right and try to do it again.

"It was never about winning one Grand Slam, or two.

"It was about trying to improve myself as a tennis player.

"I have still the same mentality as three years ago when I was 20th in the world. Try to improve my game, and win as much as I can."

Just like the words on his arm that serve as daily reminders: Try.

Even if you fail, do it until it leads to success.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2015, with the headline 'Wawrinka's mantra is to 'fail better''. Print Edition | Subscribe