How the shepherd boy beat the beast
Stanislas Wawrinka had no business winning the Australian Open. None whatsoever. Not for a guy who had no experience in a major final. Not for a guy who had been whitewashed, wrecked and broken over and over by Rafael Nadal in their 12 previous matches. Not for a guy whose motto is to fail the best he can.
Coming into the final, there was nothing outside an unlikely visit from the ghost of Rod Laver wearing Swiss colors to suggest Wawrinka could pull off an upset over the top player in the world, the one who was a sizable 1/6 favorite. Wawrinka was just too big a longshot, too small an opponent -- except for this one small oversight:Perhaps he was never the underdog in the first place.
More than 3,000 years earlier, in the Valley of Elah somewhere in southwest Jerusalem, a young man named David had a death wish. He had the impossible task of fighting a lumbering 9-foot giant they called Goliath. "Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the fowls of the heaven and to the beasts of the field," Goliath is said to have shouted out at David, bating him to do battle.
An experienced warrior versus a shepherd boy. Smart money said go with the warrior -- no matter what the odds. Goliath, after all, had made a nice living in the departments of hurling threats and instigating terror.
But as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants," things weren't exactly what they seemed after taking an extensive look into the nuances of their famous encounter.
Goliath, though he had a long fighting pedigree and an intimidating size advantage, approached the battle against his seemingly more delicate opponent with tunnel vision of sorts. He wanted to square off in hand-to-hand combat with swords, spears and javelins, while David, who knew the big man could neither move nor, as the story goes, see very well, came armed with nothing but a stone, a sling -- and a plan. It turns out, that was far more devastating weaponry than anything Goliath could offer.
By now, we all know how it turned out. As Gladwell wrote, the ballistics on the stone David sank into the hole of Goliath's armor, the one that killed the giant instantly, would have been akin to a .45 caliber pistol.
Despite everything we thought, Goliath was a sitting duck all along -- it just wasn't obvious to anyone but David.
In his book, Gladwell defines underdog as improbable victories by a weak party over someone much stronger. If you aren't familiar with his workings, you probably thought he had Stan Wawrinka in mind when he wrote it, and who can blame you? Look at the history the eventual Aussie champ was up against:
• In 35 previous Slam appearances, he never had a sniff at a final.
• No eighth seed had won Oz since 1980.
• No player had beaten the top two seeds en route to a Slam title since Sergi Bruguera in 1993.
• No player had ever vanquished Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the same Slam.
• Wawrinka was 0-26 against the world's top two heading into the Aussie
But Wawrinka acted like anything but an underdog throughout the entire tourney.
In a five-set marathon, he brought down the three-time defending champion Djokovic in the quarterfinals, took out Tomas Berdych in the semis and then Rafa in the final. Nadal is our modern-day warrior, at least in athletic circles. He is irrepressible and determined. He can win with power or attrition -- and most of the time both. But Wawrinka came into the final with a game plan. He never gave Nadal an opportunity to wear him down or overpower him. Wawrinka unleashed 19 aces (18 more than Nadal) and 53 winners (24, or an entire set's worth, more than Nadal.)
"I was feeling really good on the court," Wawrinka told reporters afterward. "I was moving well, feeling really aggressive, and I play my best set for sure by far."
Nadal, of course, was moving gingerly. He had injured his back in the second set, but by that point, Wawrinka had already crushed his spirit. Much like David knew he could expose Goliath's lack of mobility by simply unfurling a stone through his forehead, Wawrinka knew he had to keep the pressure on his ailing opponent and not give him any shot of rediscovering his measured groundies.
"I talk a lot with [coach] Magnus [Norman], who has been in that situation, to play a final," Wawrinka said. "He told me it was important not to think about the result but think about the way you want to play, the way you want to win every point.
"You know, was surprise how well I start the match. In the beginning, he was good, he was fit; he wasn't [injured]. And myself, again, I was playing amazing tennis.
"Yeah, then was the second match in the match. I had to stay calm with myself just to try to stay aggressive because he was [injured], but he was still trying a little bit. Was not easy. I start to be really nervous because I start to realize that I could win a Grand Slam."
And that he did. Rod Laver himself, sitting in the arena that bears his name, captured the moment with his iPhone. He, like the rest of us, seemed moved by Wawrinka's accomplishment.
Now, as the first fortnight of the season comes to a close, a new Grand Slam champion is crowned, probably by the player who should have won all along.
Not bad for a shepherd boy.
Experts StandingsNot one of our experts saw Stanislas Wawrinka coming. But, then again, even Wawrinka himself might not have known he was about to become a first-time Grand Slam champion at the recently concluded Australian Open.
Li Na was another surprise champion, but ESPN.com's Kamakshi Tandon -- surfing against the 10 others who caught the Serena Williams wave -- emerged with the correct pre-tournament choice.
Thus, Tandon and the ubiquitous Cliff Drysdale find themselves with the Experts' Picks lead at the quarter pole. Drysdale was the only one to emerge with three picks on the board, but because of the new-and-improved scoring system, his total is the same as Kamakshi's.
Howard Bryant, Darren Cahill and Mary Joe Fernandez are in a three-way tie for third, with Brad Gilbert and Patrick McEnroe closely behind.
For those trailing the field, the French Open can't come soon enough.