Tuesday, March 5, 2019 - Roger Federer plays Peter Gojowczyk in the 2nd of the BNP Paribas Open in Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Jared Wickerham/BNP Paribas Open)
Life isn’t easy when you’re the No. 2-ranked Swiss. It’s an existence in the shadows, of playing second fiddle, of leftovers.
It’s Roger Federer’s world, after all. We just live in it. ‘RF’ caps firmly atop our heads.
But you grow accustomed to your role. Stan Wawrinka sure has. Born in Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Wawrinka turned pro in 2002, four years after his GOAT-worthy countryman.
He’s been playing catch-up ever since.
Wawrinka and Federer first practiced together in Biel at the National Tennis Center. Federer didn’t know much about his young, French-speaking apprentice, other than he possessed a full-trajectory, one-handed backhand, and that he liked to play far back of the baseline. Federer, groomed for Grand Slam greatness and already ranked inside the Top 5, was surprised at how easy Wawrinka — four years his junior — was able to hang with him.
Wawrinka was a wide-eyed tagalong when Switzerland’s Davis Cup contingent traveled to Melbourne for the World Group semis in 2003, joining Federer, Marc Rosset, Michel Kratochvil and George Bastl. It gave the group a chance to bond, to get a glimpse of a hard-working kid who would one day win a Grand Slam or three of his own.
Wawrinka and Federer have since shared the court on many an occasion, not as teammates, but as foes. Federer, 37, holds a commanding 21-3 lead in those head-to-head encounters. They’ll meet for a 25th time on Tuesday in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open — their third matchup in Indian Wells and their first since meeting in the 2017 final. Federer won that match in straight sets, 6-4, 7-4.
“We always got along very well,” said Federer. “I have been mighty impressed how he’s made his game grow, because I thought forever he’d be just a clay-court guy. I’m his No. 1 fan when it comes to his success and how he’s been able to do it.”
Today, Wawrinka, who’ll turn 34 later this month, lacks only a Wimbledon title in his quest for a career Grand Slam. He won’t catch Federer’s Open Era-best 20 any time soon, but he’s more than satisfied with the course of his career since he was first introduced to Federer all those years ago. He’s often slighted when the tennis intelligentsia speaks of the Big Four of Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. He’s side-by-side with Murray in major titles, after all.
But don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for the Swiss to complain.
Knee surgery slowed Wawrinka’s progress in 2017. His career-high ranking of No. 3 now behind him, he would fall all the way to No. 263, his lowest mark since 2003. Back at No. 40, he’s shown flashes of his pre-surgery self, including a run to the final last month in Rotterdam, where he defeated Benoit Paire, Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Kei Nishikori in succession.
Now Stan the Man has another shot at Federer.
“It’s going to be tough match, for sure,” said Wawrinkia, who advanced with a marathon, three-hour, 24-minute, 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-5 win over Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics. “He’s the best player to ever play the sport. His stats against each other are really not in my favor.”
“He’s got all the different options how to win points,” said Federer, who’s gunning for a record sixth title in the desert. “He’s a fighter and a winner. I hope he’s going to be in the Top 20, top 10 very soon again.”