It feels like an age has passed since the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals came to a close in mid-November. The truth is it’s barely been two months and, although our feverish appetite for tennis might have been placated by a few smaller opening tournaments of the year, the first Grand Slam, the one we’ve all been waiting for, is almost upon us.
From the 19th January to 1st February, Melbourne Park will be bristling with anticipation, excitement and a veritable feast of sumptuous tennis action. Yes, the 2015 Australian Open is nearly here.
Last year we were treated to some fantastic tennis in both the women’s and men’s draws, including a pivotal and enthralling five-set quarter-final between Stanislas Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal grinding through the pain to an appearance in the final and Li Na dropping just one set on the way to her third Aussie showpiece – finally getting her hands on the coveted silverware in the process.
We know the former world number two sadly won’t be able to defend her title after retiring from the sport in the autumn of last year but there’s still much to look forward to.
Can world number four, Wawrinka, successfully hold onto the trophy he fought so tirelessly to earn? Who will step in to collect the unguarded women’s title? Can Andy Murray claim a second hard-court Slam to leave him with just the French Open standing in the way of a complete set? And how will Juan Martin Del Potro perform after making a much-welcomed winning return from injury?
With so much left unanswered as we head towards the tournament’s first day proper, Wawrinka is the fifth favourite with Betfair to win the men's singles title again. As the fortnight unfolds, it will become clearer as to who we should expect on court at the Rod Laver Arena come the second weekend, but for those who like to play early for greater returns, Wawrinka's price of 12/1 is tempting.
We’d love to be able to cover all the talking points leading up to this year’s tournament but, alas, there’s only room for one topic - Wawrinka.
As mentioned earlier, Wawrinka took the male crown last time out after putting a 14-game losing run to bed against Djokovic in the quarters and then toppling an injured Nadal on the second Sunday. Incidentally, that win ended a fruitless 12-match spell against the Spaniard. Although Wawrinka has had a topsy-turvy year since claiming his maiden Slam title, he ended 2014 strongly.
Last year, Wawrinka's victory in Melbourne was heralded as a new dawn for tennis – an example that a Slam victory was not just the preserve of the big four. This may be true. However, after convincingly winning another marquee event in the form of the Monte Carlo Masters against Roger Federer, the Swiss number two’s fortunes started to turn sour, especially in the bigger tournaments.
After suffering from a back complaint during the Rome Masters, Wawrinka came into the French Open stating that he was fit and ready to build an assault on back-to-back Slam victories. As confident as he sounded before the tournament, things went horrifically awry in the very first round, where he stumbled to defeat at the hands of Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in four sets. Granted, his opponent is a clay specialist but, given that Garcia-Lopez had never previously made it past the third round at Roland Garros, eventually dropping out in round four in 2014, and that he was ranked 38 places lower at the time, this loss would have felt like a hammer blow to Wawrinka.
Managing to dust himself down following that exit, the 29-year-old found himself in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon for the first time, just over a month later. This, in reality, was a fantastic achievement, considering he’d gone out at the first-round stage at the previous two attempts. But, with such high standards now set for himself, he must surely have been massively disappointed to miss out on a semi-final spot – especially after taking the first set against grass supremo Federer.
Things didn’t get much better at the final Slam of the year at Flushing Meadows. The Lausanne-born right-hander would have known he was in for a fight against Kei Nishikori, a man enjoying by far the best year of a seven-season career. But you would have forgiven him for thinking he was in the driving seat, with Nishikori coming into the match just two days after an energy-sapping five-setter.
What reserve the Japanese number one showed, though, coming from a set down to reach the semi-finals of the US Open after just over four hours on court. Wawrinka was surprisingly calm after the match, admitting that he made mistakes on court against a man who refused to hold back, even in set five. This steadiness and tranquility isn’t usual in Wawrinka’s game; we’re far more familiar with a capricious character who wears his heart on his sleeve and leaves everything on court. Whether there was anything more at play under the surface on that day in New York we’ll never know but, with the ATP Tour Finals in London just around the corner, there wasn’t time for wallowing over what might have been.
After a fluctuating season, just to qualify for the end-of-season showcase surely felt like an achievement and Wawrinka was extremely close to capping off his year in the same fashion as he had opened it. Unfortunately, his old friend and rival Federer found an extra gear in a pulsating last-four encounter.
Taking the first set 6-4, Wawrinka battled in vain to clinch the match in straight sets, making a number of unforced errors at crucial times – including two poor groundstrokes and a failed smash attempt on his serve at 5-6 in the second.
The final set went to a tie-break and, although Wawrinka pushed his compatriot all the way, he couldn’t quite see the match out.
Already unable to convert three match points, a fourth chance to confirm his place in the final came calling at 6/5 and once again he could not put the match to bed. Federer seized on this opportunity, keeping the rallies short and attacking his opponent at the net. Inevitably, with momentum shifting in his favour, the 17-time Grand Slam champion eventually won out but the younger Swiss will have taken heart from this performance.
In the end, patience proved precisely what was required from Wawrinka, as he found solace in the form of the Davis Cup.
Switzerland had previously had 84 bites at taking this illustrious team trophy, without success. So, when Wawrinka, Federer and co. arrived to take on the French, who were on home soil, you could have expected a few frayed nerves to be on show.
It would not be like sport to run as smoothly as one might predict though, would it? And once again its contrariness tested true, with the Swiss team hardly working up a sweat to brush aside their hosts 3-1 in rubbers. Wawrinka himself picked up two of those points – one in his singles and then alongside Federer in the doubles. To taste such a collaborative and historic victory will have massaged the shaken ego of Wawrinka.
There’s no doubting that Wawrinka will need a little luck on his side in order to retain his Australian title, as well as all that vim and verve that saw him capture it initially. Having the experience of lifting this cup aloft once before though, Wawrinka might head to Melbourne with the sense that the Davis Cup victory was just the start of greater things to come in 2015.