The first two sets belonged to a different U.S. Open — a wild, energetic, actually exciting tournament. It had been a rough two weeks at Flushing Meadows — multiple injuries and retirements, an all-around low level of play — but somewhere around the first-set tie break of this year’s men’s final, the tennis gods woke up. Stan Wawrinka, trailing 2–0, forced a 19-shot rally against no. 1 seed and presumed champion Novak Djokovic; the players slid back and forth, running toward the net to field drop shots and back to the baseline to recover lobs. Each player transitioned from offense to defense and back again. Finally, Djokovic stretched out to recover a ball deadening near the net and hit directly into a Wawrinka volley. Wawrinka bounced back to the baseline, eager to win another point and get back on serve. But Djokovic hit a stunning winner on the next point, and then the Swiss faltered. He dropped the next four points and lost the set.
Against most players, Djokovic would’ve wrapped the match up right then. But after he dropped the first set in crushing fashion, Wawrinka’s regular and redline games became indistinguishable. He crushed every groundstroke; he hit every line. On lobs, it seemed like the ball would sense that it was straying long and move back into the court. Eventually, even Djokovic couldn’t keep up against Wawrinka’s unrelenting groundstrokes. After he wins a big point or a set, Wawrinka often puts his index finger to his temple, a nod to his mental strength. There was a lot of temple contact on Sunday evening.
Wawrinka hits a heavy ball — not a parabolic, Rafael Nadal sort of heavy, but in the way that a boulder falling from the sky is heavy. Roger Federer has always been more of a finesse player; Djokovic, Nadal, and Andy Murray have made their livings sliding behind the baseline and waiting for inevitable errors. Among successful players of the last decade, Wawrinka is a lonely flagbearer for an aggressive, flat, powerful style.
In this way, Wawrinka is the perfect foil for Djokovic; he beats the felt off the ball with shocking regularity. On the wrong day, his shots will miss the lines 10 percent more than they did Sunday, and that’s all Djokovic would’ve needed to take the extremely tight, exhilarating second and third sets. But this evening, for the final three sets and through one absurd, last-ditch toe check from Djokovic, Wawrinka was perfect. That’s what it takes for an outsider to win a major nowadays.
The barrier to history-making has grown saturated. For more than 12 years now, we’ve lived in the era of Roger or Serena or Rafa. In 2016, it’s Novak’s world, but his predecessors have jacked up the expectations; what would have passed for a singular, perfect season in 2003 is now the standard for the world’s top player, whoever that may be. Only 15 years ago, the player we considered the best of all time had never even won three majors in a calendar year. Now, a single slam seems like such a small, random achievement that it’s strange to think it almost always books a player a spot in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
At the moment, there are no young (in the tennis sense) challengers; there are only three players among the ATP’s top 20 younger than 25. (For comparison, Federer, Nadal, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe — not to mention Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg — all won their first major no later than at the age of 22.) Murray, tennis’s longtime bridesmaid, is 29 and Wawrinka, its newest spoiler, is 31. There is no doubt that Wawrinka is a great player; tonight, he won his third major, something that no other man outside of the Big Four has done since 2001. He’s won each of those majors at a different tournament, something only done before by Arthur Ashe, the man for whom the U.S. Open’s main arena is named. And unlike Andy Murray, ever the punching bag of the players above him, Wawrinka has won each of the three major finals that he has reached.
Three majors, total, still leaves Wawrinka far closer to the floor than the ceiling. What does it mean to win two or three or even five majors in an era in which the greats are nearing 20? Wawrinka will never approach Roger Federer’s record; he would need to win almost five years’ worth of majors to do so. Ten years from now, we probably won’t remember Wawrinka’s cannon of a forehand, his skidding serve, or his index finger and his temple. Novak Djokovic will almost certainly come to think of this match as a temporary setback on his road to 18 slams. But if tennis in 2016 taught us anything, it is that the pursuit of history — on both the men’s and women’s sides — produces uneven, uninspiring, unmemorable play of its own. On Sunday, we got to enjoy something a lot simpler and more physical than record-breaking greatness; it’s called good tennis.