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Swiss fights history to avoid a flop

As much as the fans have enjoyed the wild Stanislas Wawrinka ride at the Australian Open, his intoxicating victory over Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals has created an extreme mismatch, and those familiar with men's history at Melbourne Park must fear a final fizzer.

Here's the worst-case, but also quite conceivable, scenario: that Rafael Nadal will be playing the part of Andre Agassi - whom Nadal has already surpassed on the tennis totem pole - and that the irresistible Wawrinka will be cast as either Arnaud Clement or Rainer Schuettler.

Agassi, like Nadal, was some distance ahead of the field once his rivals had been knocked out in 2001 (Clement) and 2003 (Schuettler).

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Aus Open Day 14: Nadal or Wawrinka?

Final day of the Australian Open sees Rafael Nadal chasing another Grand Slam title in the men's final against Stanislas Wawrinka, who's looking to win his first.

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The German Schuettler had upset Andy Roddick, who would finish that year at No.1, en route to meeting Agassi; in 2001, Clement had benefited from a fortunate draw and the Steven Bradbury-like skittling of other seeds.

He beat an immature colt called Roger Federer in the third round in straight sets. Agassi butchered both Clement and Schuettler in straight sets in contests that didn't look, sound or have the atmosphere of a grand slam final. As centre court moments, they're about as celebrated as a One Direction concert. We try to forget it happened.

Melbourne Park had a knack for producing ''insurgent'' finalists. Clement, who had some flair, and Schuettler, who didn't, were improbable finalists.

The same applied to unseeded Marcos Baghdatis (2006), who took a set from Federer, and Fernando Gonzales (2007), who forced a first set tie-breaker and was subsequently creamed. The point is that these insurgents, while fun in the quarters and semis when they're slaying giants, don't fare well in finals.

The exceptions are Thomas Johansson, who defeated Marat Safin, in 2002, and Petr Korda, who bested Marcelo Rios in an underwhelming final in 1998. The Korda final isn't celebrated much by the Australian Open - he tested positive to a banned steroid later that year at Wimbledon.

Wawrinka, ranked No.8 in the world before this event, is a superior player to some of the past insurgents, having been in and around the top 20 for a while.

He's also been in the shadows of Federer throughout his career. But if Wawrinka is better than Clement, or Schuettler or Baghdatis, unfortunately for him, Nadal is in the conversation for best player in the game's history - a discussion that will intensify if, as expected, he wins and takes his 14th grand slam title.

This would equal Pete Sampras, and given his ownership of Roland Garros, he can make a serious run at Federer's record of 17 slams in the next few years. Rafa is 27 and, underneath all that modest self-effacement, is a highly driven, ruthless winner.

Not only has Wawrinka never beaten Nadal in 12 meetings, he hasn't managed to take a set. Few think he can beat Nadal, though the players themselves always - as elite sportsmen do - talk up the chances of the underdog.

''I know it will be a very, very tough match,'' said Nadal, praising Wawrinka's serve and baseline strength. ''If I am not able to play my best, I think I will not have chances because he's coming to this match … playing great.''

When it was put to Nadal that he had never lost a set, and Wawrinka would be long odds to suddenly win three, Rafa countered: ''He's playing better than ever. Is not a question winning one or two, is a question that he's a player that is ready to win against everybody today. If I don't play my best tennis, I am sure that he will win three sets against me.''

Federer, who wants his Swiss friend to achieve what remains beyond him, added optimistically: ''There's no reason not to believe that he can beat Rafa. He's clearly got a tough record against him, but many players have that. There's no difference there. Pressure's clearly on Rafa because he's got to win this final. Stan's in his first grand slam final, so that makes Stan also unpredictable. He's got to use that to his advantage.''

Wawrinka says he's ignoring his record against Nadal - a sensible outlook - and noted he had lost to Djokovic ''13-14 times'' before his upset over the Djoker.

''I don't care about having lost 14 times, I think,'' Wawrinka said on Saturday. ''But it's more about playing Rafa. He's No.1, the best player. His game is quite tough for me, especially with [my] one-hand backhand. But I did some good match against him, close one. I find a few things that I will try tomorrow.''

Wawrinka said he would ''always think I can change all the statistics, that's positive''.

Federer can hardly talk down the chances of the second Swiss, who will surpass Federer in the rankings as a result of reaching the final, regardless of the outcome. Neutral observers aren't so hopeful about Wawrinka, given that, as he mentioned, he plays a one-handed backhand - the shot that is Federer's undoing against Nadal. The feeling is that Wawrinka should be praying for blisters, and Nadal appears to have fixed that problem by using a different bandage.

''You saw the stats - two winners and 40 errors on the backhand,'' said an ATP insider. ''That's what Rafa does. He takes your strength and turns it into a weakness. He's likely to do the same to Wawrinka's backhand. What's Stan got that Roger hasn't got? Slightly more power on the backhand.''

What Stan's got that Roger hasn't is a berth in the final, but he's long odds to have what has eluded Federer since 2007: a victory over the iron Spaniard in a grand slam final.

5 comments so far

  • Who cares? Stan has the attitude of a winner. If he loses and he probably will he can just lose better next time. We need more little engines who could in sport.

    Commenter
    Jeremy Dixon
    Date and time
    January 25, 2014, 9:09PM
    • I thought Bernard Tomic, the great Australian hope was playing in the finals

      Commenter
      Ray
      Location
      Auckland
      Date and time
      January 26, 2014, 2:02AM
      • Odds are definitely in Nadal's favour. I think people were so focused on what Federer was doing, would do and didn't do that many missed the fact that Nadal played unbelievably good tennis. What might work in Wawrinka's favour is that he hits is backhand significantly harder than Federer does. Provided he can deal with Nadal's topsin, he might have a shot. If he plays tonight the way he did against Djokovic, it should at least be entertaining to watch.

        Commenter
        Aaron
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        January 26, 2014, 7:27AM
        • I think we are in for a great match. Stan is a fighter like Rafa, good luck to them both.

          Commenter
          Brett
          Date and time
          January 26, 2014, 12:00PM
          • I assume we are going to have the match interrupted by this stupid fireworks display again, are we? One of the most embarrassing occurrences on the sporting calendar. Yet no one is prepared to do anything about it and stop it. Why not?

            Commenter
            Eddo
            Date and time
            January 26, 2014, 1:41PM

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