The secrets of a champion: Stan Wawrinka

From 2004 to 2020, fifty-four of the sixty-four Slam tournaments played were won by Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. Only six other players manage to enter their name in the roll of honor of one of the four most prestigious tournaments. Three times Murray, perhaps the least fab of the Fab Four, but still a player capable, in 2016, of becoming world number one. Stanislas Wawrinka also triumphs three times, and in three different tournaments: in 2014 in Australia, in 2015 in Paris, in 2016 in Flushing Meadows. Only Wimbledon is missing, and Wawrinka could even boast the Career Grand Slam, an exceptional result in general, and which would even be incredible in the era of the Big Three.

It is understandable, however, that it is Wimbledon that is missing from the call: Stan’s one-handed backhandof rare power, it requires a preparation that is hardly compatible with a fast and unpredictable surface such as grass. That said: not just three Grand Slams, but also a gold medal in doubles at the Beijing Olympics, sixteen ATP titles, and Davis Cup victory (it must be said, paired with Federer, but Stan was decisive) in 2014.

So what are the weapons that have allowed Wawrinka to stand up to extraordinary opponents throughout his career? We will ask ourselves by analyzing the data relating to his Grand Slam matches, in the period 2011-2021. Before we proceed, however, let’s take a closer look at the Swiss career.

Palmarès

Already at the junior level, Stan Wawrinka stands out, winning the French Open and conquering the seventh position in the ranking. In 2004 he turned professional and made his debut in the Davis Cup, losing his first match, defeated by Victor Hănescu. In 2006, he wins his first title, defeating in the final in Umag a young Serbian who will make a lot of talk about himself: a certain Novak Djokovic. In 2008, for the first time, in Rome, Stan reaches the final of a Master 1000 tournament. Once again Djokovic is his opponent: on this occasion, however, Wawrinka wins the first set, but is then reassembled and defeated.

At the end of the 2008 season, he will enter the top 10 for the first time. At the Beijing Olympics, he won (together with Federer) the gold medal in doubles. From 2009 to 2012, Stan develops a solid career, but without sharp details. In 2013, however, he changes something. There is probably a match that proves it more than any other, right at the beginning of the season. Once again, at a defining moment in his career, Wawrinka takes on Djokovic, in the round of 16 of the Australian Open. The prediction seems obvious, but Stan plays an extraordinary match, scoring spectacular winners, especially with the backhand.

It is not enough to win: the game belongs to Djokovic, who wins it in the fifth set. But that’s enough to definitively convince Stan that he can really play with everyone. He returns to the top 10 and, in Flushing Meadows, reaches his first Grand Slam semifinal, defeated (once again) by Djokovic.

The following year, the 2014is that of definitive consecration. In Australia, Stan won his first Grand Slam, defeating Nadal in the final. In Monte-Carlo, he defeats Federer in the final and wins his first Master 1000. At the end of the year, he is the protagonist with Federer of the victory of the Davis Cup by Switzerland. He closes 2014 as number 3 in the world, which will remain his best ranking. In 2015, Wawrinka takes revenge with Djokovic, beating him, somewhat surprisingly, in the final of Roland Garros, denying Nole the Career Grand Slam (temporarily). He passes the London Masters round robin at the end of the year, but is defeated by Federer in the semifinals.

The following year, another sharp: once again, Stan defeats Djokovic in a Grand Slam final, this time at Flushing Meadows. This is thethe only match of all 2016 in which Nole loses the match after winning the first set: testimony of Wawrinka’s determination and character. In 2017 he reached the Roland Garros final once again, but was defeated by Nadal (first defeat for Wawrinka in a Grand Slam final). Then, unfortunately comes the knee injury. For the rest of 2017 and essentially all of 2018, the Swiss champion cannot find continuity.

In 2019, he reached the quarter-finals of the US Open, and was defeated by Medvedev. His physical condition seems to have improved but, by the time he reaches thirty-four, Stan seems to be heading towards the end of a great career. After the troubled season since COVID in 2020 and a foot injury in 2021, Stan still decides to return to the field in 2022, looking for a difficult but, given his talent and determination, not impossible redemption.

An overview

Before deepening the analysis, in search of winning and losing patterns, we try, as far as possible, to have an overview, framing Wawrinka’s style of play of the last ten years with a series of statistics, the values ​​of which averages are shown in Figure 1, separately by playing surface.

Figure 1. Average game statistics for Wawrinka, singles match in Grand Slam tournaments from 2011 onwards

Not surprisingly, Wawrinka’s great ability to score winners (over forty on average, on all surfaces) while, perhaps, the fact that the balance between winners and unforced errors reaches its best value on grass, the only surface on which Stan has never won a Grand Slam, arouses some more surprise. On reflection, however, we can try to deduce that it is not so much the relationship between winners and unforced errors that makes the difference for Wawrinka compared to other surfaces as, more generally, the dynamics of the game.

That is, Stan does not make many gratuitous mistakes and still scores many winners, even on grass, but often, on this surface, he makes forced mistakes. In particular, this can happen on the backhand side, if the opponent presses Wawrinka, reducing the time available for the preparation of the shot..

A second set of statistics, shown in Figure 2, can help us get an even better idea:

Figure 2. Other average statistics for Wawrinka, singles match in Grand Slam tournaments from 2011 onwards

From this second graph, a good completeness emerges (70% net yield, for example, on all surfaces), but what we could define as a Wawrinka’s small Achilles heel: the difference in height between the first and second service balls.

In fact, if with the first one Stan takes home a considerable number of points, not only and not so direct (ace), but with the serve-straight or even serve-backhand scheme, the second ball is not only slower, but less unpredictable compared to players of this level. In particular in the matches against Federer, perhaps this was one of the elements that often tipped the scales in favor of Roger, who instead has a second ball full of variations, and very difficult to attack.

Looking for confirmation of this observation, we can also note that, on the fast, Wawrinka’s ability to cancel breakpoints drops sharply with respect to the earth (albeit at an excellent 70%), testifying to the fact that, especially when the surface allows it, the opponents have some opportunity to snatch the joke from Stan by attacking him right from the answer.

The most significant patterns, the key elements of Wawrinka’s game

After this overview, let’s try to ask ourselves which of the various game statistics (which represent our input variables) are decisive, and how, with respect to victory or defeat in the match (which represents our output variable ). In other words, let’s set up a classification problem.

For greater clarity, we make sure that the classification algorithm used automatically returns, on the basis of the available variables, a model consisting of a set of rules, which represent the statistically most significant patterns that lead Wawrinka to victory or defeat. Below, we illustrate the three most significant rules calculated as follows:

  1. If Wawrinka has a better first serve ball performance than his opponent and the opponent does not show more than 33 times, then the Swiss player wins the game.“. The pattern occurred on sixty-three occasions and, on sixty-two of them, Wawrinka won the match.
  2. If Wawrinka scores at least 1.6 aces more than the opponent on average per set and converts the break points with a percentage of at least 4.5% higher, he wins the game.“. The pattern is less general, but extremely precise: it has occurred thirty-two times, and in all these matches Wawrinka has won the victory.
  3. If Wawrinka does not get at least ten break points in a match consisting of more than 39 games and has a performance on the first not more than 5.1% better than the opponent, he is defeated.“. The pattern has occurred fifteen times, and that’s fifteen losses for Stan.

Based on rules like these, considering that the more a game characteristic appears as a relevant condition within these patterns, the more we can define it as a key element of the Swiss champion’s game. We will therefore be able, on the basis of the data, to draw up a feature ranking, or a sort of ranking of the various aspects of the game, distinguishing those that, to a greater extent, alone or in combination with others, have proved decisive.

Figure 3. Feature ranking associated with Wawrinka Grand Slam matches, from 2011 onwards. The length of the bar represents the relevance of the feature, the direction represents the direction of the correlation (direct for bars that develop to the right, inverse for bars that develop to the left)

It is not surprising how, in the first and fourth position, there are two elements linked to the first service ball, and in particular the difference in performance compared to the opponent (most significant feature) and the difference in terms of ace (fourth most significant feature) .

At first glance, the nature of the second and third features, linked to the net game, is more striking: they are, respectively, the difference in the percentage of net descents transformed into points and the absolute number of net descents transformed into points by the ‘opponent. However, we can perhaps interpret the data in these terms: if Stan, who is not a network player (despite having a decent hand) manages to overcome or contain the opponent also from this point of view, it means that he is controlling the matchand will probably manage to win it.

In conclusion, the fifth most significant feature is the average difference in terms of unforced errors per set, which reminds us that even a player of the talent of Wawrinka can’t afford to push the game too hard, and to commit an excessive number of unforced errors. Having given up the satisfaction of seeing his first film as a producer, and eight months after his last foot surgery, Stan returns to tennis and declares that he still wants to win. Excellent news for all fans, who will still have the opportunity to see him at work even if the debut in the challenger of Marbella was not the best.

Note: the analysis and graphs included in the article are made using the Rulex software


Born in Genoa in 1985, Damiano Verda is a computer engineer and data scientist but is also passionate about writing. “There’s four and twenty million doors on life’s endless corridor” (there are millions of doors along the infinite corridor of life), sang Oasis. Convinced that even writing, while having fun, can be a way to try to half-open some of those doors, along that endless corridor. To read his articles visit www.damianoverda.it

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