This was the year of the outsider at the Australian Open. Few would have picked Stanislas Wawrinka and Li Na as champions ahead of the fortnight in Melbourne. But the outcome was a reminder that the only certainty in sport is its inherent uncertainty. Wawrinka and Li took contrasting routes to victory: the 28-year-old Swiss became only the ninth man in the Open Era and the first in 21 years to beat both the No.1 and No.2 seeds to triumph; the 31-year-old Chinese woman, the first Asian to win ‘The Grand Slam of the Asia/Pacific’, made capital of a draw that opened up after the exit of favourites Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka. But this is not to say one achievement was any less than the other. For Wawrinka and Li’s underdog stories are uplifting — seven matches in 14 days against the best in the world ensure that only the truly deserving survives.
Wawrinka said he could not imagine winning a major and it is not hard to see why. It has been incredibly difficult to break through in this era of men’s tennis. Only on one other occasion in the last nine years has there been a Grand Slam champion outside the Big Four of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray — Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open. In emerging from compatriot Federer’s giant shadow and defeating Djokovic and Nadal, Wawrinka proved that he deserves a chair at the top table. The difference in Wawrinka has been his recognition of failure’s transformative potential. He has tattooed on his left arm, Samuel Beckett’s words, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It helps that he is an incredibly talented shot-maker with reserves of easy power. “God, his backhand, I wish I had that thing,” said the great Pete Sampras, who presented him the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. Wawrinka earned it the hard way. He steeled himself to beat Djokovic in the quarterfinals, after two heart-breaking five-set defeats to the Serb in 2013. He then betrayed no nerves in his first-ever Grand Slam final, outplaying Nadal for a set and a bit with tactically sharp tennis that was as ruthless as it was dazzling. Things became messy with Nadal’s injury — Wawrinka’s focus wavered, the enormity of victory began to weigh heavy; all the while the great Spaniard refused to lose. But Wawrinka recovered his composure — much as Li had done the previous day in a tight first set in the women’s final — to embrace victory. Li’s triumph, after a year during which she contemplated retirement, showed how quickly matters can change in sport; it merely requires the will to seize the moment. Few have done it to such popular acclaim as Wawrinka and Li.