A few years ago I wrote about the Swiss tennis player Stanislas Wawrinka.(you can read that here) I mused about what it might be like for him to be in the shadow of his friend and countryman Roger Federer, considered by many to be the greatest player of all time. Little did I know back then that I had chosen such an inspiring Hero as my subject.
Stan Wawrinka won the Australian Open last weekend. This is one of four major championships of the year, the height of achievement in tennis.
So how does a really, really good tennis player go from being solidly in the top 20, with four tournament wins spanning an eleven year career, to a Major Champion and number three in the World in a single year?
An epic match at last year’s Australian Open against Novak Djokovic, the number one player at the time, triggered a shift. It was a thriller and Stan’s level of play impressed every one. He lost the match but found something new, belief. If he could hang with the best player in the World then maybe, just maybe, he could beat him.
After that loss, Stan got this tattooed on his forearm:
Ever tried, ever failed, no matter
Try again, fail again, fail better
This quote from writer Samuel Beckett offers an enlightening notion of failure. It doesn’t matter that you fail, it only matters that you try again. If one can see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow, then everything is possible. Don’t give up, fail better.
Clearly, this positive view of failure made a difference for Stan Wawrinka. He has played the best tennis of his career since getting that tattoo, exceeding many of his own expectations. But, by his own admission, he did not think he could win a Major title.
His road to such a victory was sensational. His game kept getting stronger throughout the year. With every loss came more growth and more belief. He began to beat players he was not supposed to beat. The tennis announcers could not contain their excitement over his great climb. The thing is, Stan is also a great guy and very well liked. People were happy for him. You could feel it from the fans, the announcers and even the other players.
He persevered, humbly and steadily, earning plenty of respect along the way. At this Australian Open, one year after that pivotal match, he and Djokovic met again in the quarterfinals. They played another grueling five set match. This time Stan won. It was an absolute triumph. He’d made it to his second consecutive Major semi-final and then, holy cow, he won that too!
The final match was against the amazing Rafael Nadal, who is currently number one in the World. After Stan won a stellar first set, it became clear that something was not right on the other side of the court. Nadal was injured, his movement was significantly off.
While Nadal was working around an injured back, Wawrinka was struggling to work around his mind. Two great sportsmen were in a battle against themselves rather than one another. Stan was so close to the biggest win of his career but he had to allow himself to fight hard against an injured player to get there. He had to stay focused, he had to play his best tennis.
Eventually he did. His celebration was brief and he moved quickly to meet Nadal at the net. They stood there for quite a while locked in a handshake and embrace. Stan was humble and expressed concern; Rafa was reassuring and congratulatory. There was genuine respect on both of their faces.
Then Stan took his victory walk around the court, visibly taking in the moment. With trophy in hand he told the cheering crowd “Right now I still don’t know if I am dreaming or not, but we’ll see tomorrow morning.”
Stan Wawrinka’s win made me feel elated. Not only did he step out of the shadow of Roger Federer, but more importantly, he stepped into the light of his own potential. He failed better and better until he claimed the ultimate success: champion.