The 28-year-old Swiss, one of a number of dark horses hoping to shake up the establishment at next week’s Australian Open, has a quote from literary giant Samuel Beckett inked on his left forearm which reads: “Ever tried.
Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”
Irishman Beckett, an absurdist writer renowned for his bleak observation of human nature, might seem an unusual motivator for a sportsman, but the quote aptly describes the noble, fruitless struggle that Wawrinka and his colleagues wage year after year trying to stop the same names winning the grand slams.
Since Russia’s Marat Safin won the 2005 Australian Open, 34 of the 35 major trophies have been raffled between Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, with Argentine Juan Martin del Potro’s 2009 triumph at Flushing Meadows the sole anomaly.
“I did that (tattoo) because it’s a little bit like how I see my life, and especially my tennis life,” Wawrinka told Reuters after training at Melbourne Park.
“If you see, I’ve been playing 10 years, it’s a lot already but I only have five titles, so that means there’s only been five weeks where I’ve finished like a winner.
“Every week we’re losing except the top four, the top three. So that means we have to take positives from that. We need to still try things, we need to still improve.
“I always try to find the positives in losing a match but it’s not always easy.”
Wawrinka, who will face Kazak Andrey Golubev in the first round which starts on Monday, has collected his five titles slowly and in some unlikely places.
Success came early with his first winner’s trophy hoisted in Umag, Croatia in 2006 when Djokovic retired hurt in the final. But it took another four years for his second to land in Casablanca.
His last triumph was his second title in Chennai earlier this month. It was just the tonic ahead of the year’s first grand slam and follows a breakout season in 2013 for Wawrinka, who finished in the top 10 for the first time after two years of grafting in the teens.
Inevitably, Wawrinka has lived in the shadow of compatriot and 17-times grand slam winner Federer, but the ‘Swiss Maestro’s’ slip to world number six after a forgettable 2013 has produced a sliver of hope for the long-denied second tier.
Queries over fourth seed Murray’s fitness as the Briton returns from back surgery have also added to the intrigue.
With Murray and Federer drawn in the same quarter, ultra-fit Spaniard David Ferrer, seeded third, and hard-hitting Czech Tomas Berdych could battle each other for a potential semi-final with triple-defending champion Djokovic.
Wawrinka has not been quite so lucky and would face a likely quarter-final with second seed Djokovic, but the Swiss may have the best credentials to upset the steely-eyed Serb.
In one of the highlights of last year’s tournament, Wawrinka pushed Djokovic to five enthralling sets in the fourth round and shed exhausted tears after losing 12-10 in the fifth.
“I think it was one of the key moments of the year and the reason I started to play better and to win more matches,” said the softly-spoken Wawrinka, wearing the beginnings of a beard and a sunburnt nose.
“It was tough to lose because I was playing my best tennis. I was close to beating Novak, the best player on hardcourts, five hours against him.
“At the end I took so many positives from that match. I realised after that match I had the level to fight with them and to beat the few top players.”
Wawrinka garnered further self-belief by beating then-world number four Ferrer to win in Portugal in the clay-court season on the way to a maiden quarter-final at Roland Garros.
He emerged from Federer’s shadow decisively at the U.S. Open, trouncing defending champion Murray in straight sets to reach his first grand slam semi-final.
Another gutsy five-set marathon against Djokovic saw a defeated Wawrinka leave Arthur Ashe Stadium with a standing ovation but with no answer to the Serb’s supreme fitness.
The Swiss is braced for another meeting with his Serbian nemesis who holds a 15-2 winning record over him and is riding a 21-match winning streak at Melbourne Park. Top seed Nadal, on the other side of the draw, holds a 12-0 record over Wawrinka.
Little wonder he still speaks with the caution of a man prepared to ‘fail better’.
“They’ve been there for many years because they’re better players, better fighters and they’re winning all the big titles, so that’s the reason why they’re better than us,” he said.
“But we’re all fighting … maybe we will see some surprises.”
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)