A second-fiddle Swiss no more, Stan Wawrinka Friday night advanced to a major-tournament championship final for the third time in two years with a 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Japan’s Kei Nishikori in an exhausting U.S. Open semifinal.
The match fit Wawrinka’s career narrative of long-suffering. Incomplete success early, persistence throughout, big payoffs near the end.
Wawrinka points a finger at his temple during tough times in matches. Because, he said, he knows there will be “some up and down, and sometimes I have to fight with myself. To accept to suffer.”
Never as far as the semifinal of a Grand Slam event in his first 35 appearances, Wawrinka, at 31, now is in his third major title match in the last three years. In his last 13 Slam events, he has advanced at least as far as the semifinals six times.
So he — not his far more celebrated countryman, Roger Federer, who currently is rehabilitating a surgically repaired knee — will play top-ranked Novak Djokovic on Sunday.
And after years of toiling at a slightly lower level than the sport’s elite, Wawrinka has reached a point where the likes of Djokokic are not safe against him. In his two previous Slam finals, Wawrinka has beaten the man then ranked No. 1 — Rafael Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open and Djokovic in the 2015 French Open.
“To be in the final again is something crazy,” Wawrinka said. But he understood that against Nishikori, who beat Wawrinka in a grueling five-set, 4-hour, 15-minute Open quarterfinal two years ago, “I had to wait, I had to fight, he had to get tired a little bit. He was plahing really good from the beginning, dictating, putting pressure on me.”
In the scheme of Wawrinka’s patience over his long career, Friday night’s 3 hours and 17 minutes was nothing. Wawrinka saved 11 of 15 break points and regrouped after his 3-0 lead in the fourth set was cut to 3-2 by the charging, scrambling Nishikori.
Nishikori, who needed five sets to upset No. 2 Andy Murray in the quarterfinals, acknowledged his fatigue at the end. “He was playing much better the last two sets,” Nishikori said of Wawrinka. “More powerful tennis. And I stop moving a little bit.”
When the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof was closed eight games into the third set, it did not put a lid on Nishikori’s aggressiveness. But the enclosure took the edge off the heat and humidity a bit, which has caused Wawrinka to work his way through several rackets and a few shirts.
The Open’s runner-up (to Marin Cilic) in 2014, Nishikori entered the match with a 5-0 record against Top 10 players at Flushing Meadows, his conquest of Murray on Wednesday added to victories two years ago against No. 1 Djokovic, No. 4 Wawrinka, No. 6 Milor Raonic, and in 2008 against No. 4 David Ferrer.
“I’m really happy,” Wawrinka said. “I watch the final here so many times. Roger, Novak. Rafael. To play in it this time is something special.”