One Last Chapter
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This time last year, I was thinking about retiring.
I have to be honest about that.
I was wondering whether I would ever play at Wimbledon again. When I had surgery on my left foot in March 2021, the goal was to come back a few weeks later. But when they told me that I’d need a second surgery, I knew I’d be out for months and months.
If I came back, I would not be the same player. I would be close to 37 years old.
You have to face all these uncomfortable facts, and each prompts a question.- Stan Wawrinka
And I knew how painful the rehab would be.
I had done it before, in 2017. That year I played with a painful knee at the French Open, but at Wimbledon I could hardly move. I needed surgery — a big one. They had to replace part of a bone. The next few months I would spend five hours a day at the rehab centre. I went from being No. 4 in the world to limping around on crutches.
The worst part is that you don’t always see the progress. With normal fitness work you’re used to seeing your effort pay off quickly. But rehab is slow. When you get home you’re exhausted, so you turn on the TV, only to see your rivals running around on the court. Mentally, it is very hard.
In 2017 I wasn’t sure at all if I would ever be able to come back. But once the surgery had gone well, I knew I wanted to try. Less than two years later, I reached the quarterfinals at the French Open and then got back into the top 20. I wasn’t as good as before, but I was happy.
And then I needed another surgery last year. Then another. So this time I had more doubts. When I began rehab, my body needed even more time to recover. I had the second surgery in June.
By December I still could not walk properly.
So you start to think. You go back over your career in search of motivation. You have to face all these uncomfortable facts, and each prompts a question.
Does it make sense for me to continue?- Stan Wawrinka
You still cannot walk.
When will I be able to run again?
You know you’ll never be as good as you once were.
Does it make sense for me to continue?
You know how much blood, sweat and tears it will take to come back.
Is this really what I want?
My biggest talent, I think, has always been that I love hard work. Even as a kid, I liked the physical and mental exhaustion. Of course, I enjoy hitting an ace or smashing a winner down the line.
But there is also something beautiful about pushing yourself to the limit.
When I started playing at eight years old, I never dreamed of winning Grand Slams. Those were for special players. I was just a boy from a farm in Switzerland. Even in my teens I was never the best in my age group. I never won a Swiss junior championship.
All I wanted was to turn professional. I’d be happy to make the top 100.
The only people who believed I could go further were my parents. But then parents always think that their kids are the best, you know? Hahaha.
They were the ones who got me into tennis. They wanted me and my two sisters and my older brother to play a sport outside school, and we had a tennis club five minutes from our home near Lausanne. That home was actually a farm that my parents ran. They were also taking care of 15 to 20 disabled people who were living there with us. We would eat meals together, and they became like our extended family. I still remember them all.
Whatever is thrown at you — match time, opponent, weather — you have to adapt.- Stan Wawrinka
When I got better at tennis, I’d come back to the farm and they would say, “Hey, I saw you on TV!” Hahaha. They were following what I was doing.
Anyway, I fell in love with tennis. When I was 11, I got my first coach, Dimitri Zavialoff. One day he asked me to try a one-handed backhand.
Good advice, Dimitri. ;-)
Still, even when I turned professional, I was not thinking about the Grand Slams. Just playing at the Olympics in 2008 was a dream that I wanted to enjoy. I’m talking not just about winning gold, but also about the two weeks I spent with other athletes in the village, playing cards and having fun. Of course, playing doubles with Roger Federer was also special. I was under pressure to play well because he had lost in singles. I struggled in the first two matches, but we still won because … you know, Roger is Roger.
That gold didn’t mean that I had become a better player, though. Singles and doubles are very different, and I actually lost my way in singles over the next couple of months. I dropped out of the top 10. So I started to doubt myself, and then the years flew by.
Five years later, I was 28, and I had still never played a Grand Slam semifinal.
I wondered if I would ever make it to the very top.
All I knew was that I was doing the right things. Talent is part of it, but you have to eat right, sleep right, recover well and drink a lot of water — you’ve got to stay hydrated when you’re playing in so many warm places. You need a great team around you. Since you decide your own schedule in tennis, you have to find the right balance between playing tournaments and pure practice. Whatever is thrown at you — match time, opponent, weather — you have to adapt. It’s all a big puzzle.
All those years after the Olympics, I was putting in the work. I was just missing a few pieces.
In 2013 I started working with a new coach, the great Magnus Norman. He worked a lot on my confidence and my weaknesses, and soon things started to happen. That year I finally got back into the top 10. At the U.S. Open I played in my first Grand Slam semifinal, where I took my good friend Novak Djokovic to five sets. So yeah, when I entered the 2014 Australian Open, I didn’t really think I could win … but I was feeling great.
I knew I was at the top of my game. When I reached the final, I was just excited. Not once was I nervous in the run-up to that match. I mean, a Grand Slam final against Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 player in the world? This was so crazy for me that I had never even bothered to dream about it.
Worst case, I’d lose. And so what? I was still in the final.
I had to face two opponents: Rafa and myself.- Stan Wawrinka
At the start I played amazing tennis. Rafa hurt his back a little — but he’s still Rafa, you know? Still fighting. Unfortunately, when I was two sets up, 6–3 6–2, my head got all messed up. I was like, Oh! Maybe I’m going to win a Grand Slam!
Once you allow yourself to think that, you’re in big trouble.
I lost focus on the match. I could see the trophy next to me. For the first time in that tournament I felt like I had something to lose. That moment, another match started. I had to face two opponents: Rafa and myself.
Rafa took the third set 6–3. Luckily, I finally recovered in the fourth.
A few minutes later, I was a Grand Slam champion.
Some have asked me why I didn't cry or collapse to the ground. But I don’t need to go crazy. I’m a shy person. It wouldn’t have felt natural. But I was relieved. I was happy. And yes, I did celebrate a lot later. For nights like that I’m unbeatable!
I mean, if you don’t party after that, then when will you ever celebrate anything?
When I reached another final, at the French Open in 2015, I was still at my peak. This time I was nervous. I knew what it was like to be there, and my head was spinning. Maybe this is my last final. Maybe I’ll never be here again.
I needed to win. I didn’t want to lose. I couldn’t lose.
But those thoughts are not helpful, especially when you’re playing Novak. He was No. 1 at the time — I think he’d won 28 matches in a row. Also, I was exhausted, because I had just played a semifinal against Tsonga for nearly four hours in burning heat. I’d slept badly, too. So I just told myself, This is the French Open. You have watched the last 20 finals, now you are here. Enjoy it.
When you walk out at the Chatrier, it’s hard not to be nervous. But then you look around. You see the crowd, you take in the energy, and once the match starts you just focus on hitting the ball over the net. Even when I lost the first set 4–6, I felt I was playing well. My game was there. Physically, I was there. I just needed to push myself a bit more.
Over the next three sets I played the best tennis of my life. I was hitting shots not even I thought I could pull off. You remember the backhand around the post? That wasn’t luck. The ball went so wide that I knew that gap was my only option. SMACK! Wooo-aaaahh! Thirty-love, Wawrinka.
Winning that final was so special. My feelings the year before against Rafa had been mixed since he’d had an injury. In Paris, I felt more fulfilled. I had played the game of my life against a guy who was winning everything. I just felt … proud.
I met Novak again in the final at the 2016 U.S. Open. It’s funny, because I had turned 31, so I was supposed to be past my best, yet this was my third Slam final in three years. Just like at Roland Garros, I thought this could be my last big one. Also, it was the U.S. Open, so I was like, I haven’t won this one before. I can’t lose this.
Again I was very nervous. Fifteen minutes before the final, I was in the dressing room about to walk out. The TV cameras were waiting. There were more than 20,000 people about to cheer us on.
Then I began to cry.
I still can’t think of one single reason why. Mentally, I was drained, because those two weeks had been really hot and humid, and I’d had tough matches against del Potro and Nishikori. I was a nervous wreck, because I was getting old and this was an opportunity I felt I could not miss. So yeah, I felt terrible. I wanted to throw up.
Magnus gave me a pep talk. He probably should have poured cold water on me and slapped my face, but he made the point that it is normal to feel nervous. He was right. When an athlete talks about nerves, people think, Just DON’T be nervous! But this is part of the game. You can’t tell yourself to not be nervous, so you have to accept it.
Magnus was trying to help me handle that part of it. But at the start of the match, it didn’t work. I wasn’t moving well. When I moved my arm through the strokes, it was not going the way I wanted.
Novak took the first set 7–6.
Eventually, I hit my best level. I knew that I was still thinking too much, so the only solution was to make myself physically tired. Basically, when you’re exhausted, your brain doesn’t have time to think about all this bulls***. So I tried to play longer rallies, and the voice in my head finally shut up.
That’s basically how I won the U.S. Open. After four sets, it was over.
Three Slams in three years.
I was having a career beyond my wildest dreams.
The only bad part was that I was feeling pain in my foot. Since I was No. 4 in the world, I kept playing. I reached the semifinals at the 2017 Australian Open. Since the clay went easier on my knee, I also played at the French Open — and made the final. But on the grass at Wimbledon, I lost in the first round. I could not play on like this. At 32, I needed surgery.
I did not think about retirement. I had not had many injuries, so I felt I could push my body hard and come back quickly. Still, it was tough. When you see other players on TV, you have to distance yourself from what they are doing. It’s all about accepting reality and where you are. You cannot change it, so do what you can control. Stay positive. Step by step. Regrets? What ifs? Negative thoughts? Forget them.
If you stay positive, you are already one step on the way.
Do I still enjoy this? The sweat, the bruises, the pain?- Stan Wawrinka
That’s how I came back the first time.
And that’s how I did it again.
As I said, after the two surgeries last year I did think about retirement. The road back had been so hard the first time that it felt almost impossible to do it again. But I quickly went back to positive thinking. My whole life has been about falling down and getting back up. I even have a tattoo about it: EVER TRIED. EVER FAILED. NO MATTER. TRY AGAIN. FAIL AGAIN. FAIL BETTER.
This is the way I see life. Even when you are at the top, you still lose matches all the time. So after a big loss, I’d ask myself, “What do you want?”
After my second surgery, I knew what I wanted. Was it time to stop? No. I still loved tennis. I still loved practicing. I still believed that I could play at a good level. I was not afraid of hard work. But the most important thing was that I did not want to finish my career being injured. That was not how I wanted to say goodbye.
I did not know if I would ever make it back. But I loved tennis too much not to try.
Right now, I’m feeling good. I have only been playing since March, but I’m happy to be back at Wimbledon. I’m not there yet. I have a lot of work to do. I need to play matches, because practice can never recreate the way you feel in a tournament. There are still some pieces of the puzzle that are missing.
Given how little tennis I have played, I know it will be difficult for me to go far in Wimbledon. Either way, what matters is the day-to-day work. If I do those things well, I’ll be happy. And then, if I’m feeling great toward the end of the summer, I’ll set some goals. I want to climb in the rankings. And I want to win a tournament again. I’m not talking about a Grand Slam; it could be ATP 1000, 500, 250 — any level. Doesn’t matter.
But first, I have to feel that I’m ready for that. Right now, I’m not.
I know that this is the final part of my career, one last chapter. I cannot play forever. I think I have two or three years left at most. I want to enjoy them, and the only way to do that is to give myself the best possible chance to win a trophy. How do I do that? I push myself to the limit.
You might be asking: Do I still enjoy this? The sweat, the bruises, the pain?
Well, let me tell you this before I sign off. Just a few weeks ago I was playing Frances Tiafoe in the first round at Queen’s. I had put a lot of pressure on myself, because I wanted to see if I still had the ability to win big matches.
The sun was shining. The atmosphere was great. We played three tense sets.
Match time: two hours and 47 minutes.
At one point he was serving for the match.
Somehow, I found my best tennis just when I needed it. I won 7–6, 6–7, 7–6.
The level was great. The crowd was incredible.
What an amazing moment.
Two days later, I felt every one of my 37 years. My legs were screaming. Mentally, I was drained. My body was completely exhausted. And all I wanted was to play another match.