IN BATTLE OF VETERANS: Stan Wawrinka beat Fernando Verdasco

“I quite like Stanimal,” Stan Wawrinka said when asked to pick his favorite among his many nicknames after his 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-4 win over Fernando Verdasco on Tuesday.

Wawrinka said the word fits the mentality he tries to have when he plays three-out-of-five-set matches at the majors. And there was a brutal quality to his matchup with Verdasco. Their first-rounder had been circled by many of us as one to watch. While Wawrinka came in with the higher ranking—No. 3 to No. 46—Verdasco led their head to head 3-2, and had won their only meeting in 2016, at Queen’s Club.

For a set, at least, this contest lived up to its heavyweight billing. Wawrinka and Verdasco came out doing what they do: slugging. The rallies weren’t long, but amplified under the new roof they were loud. They were also the definition of hit and miss. You can accuse Wawrinka and Verdasco of a lot of things, but playing it safe isn’t one of them. They both have a knack for putting the ball an inch inside the line on one point, and an inch outside on the next.

The Spaniard looked to be ready for this one at the start. His showcase shot is his forehand, and he went after it early and often. He was also the one who made early inroads on his opponent’s serve. Verdasco had a break point at 2-2, which was wiped away by a service winner. At 4-4, he went up 0-30 on Wawrinka’s serve after two big returns, but his winners quickly turned to errors and Wawrinka won four straight points to hold. That pattern repeated itself at 5-5, when Verdasco reached break point again only to find himself handcuffed by a Wawrinka forehand.

Instead it was Wawrinka, who had been running uphill for most of the set, who made the most of his opportunity when it finally came. At 3-2 in the tiebreaker, he took a crosscourt forehand by Verdasco and sent one of his trademark backhand cannon shots down the line for a winner. Wawrinka punctuated the point with a “Come on!” and crossed to the other side of the net with a new spring in his step. He never lost it. Verdasco had hit more winners and made fewer errors in the set, but he had somehow found a way to lose it. He never threatened Wawrinka again.

Asked beforehand what the key to the match was, Wawrinka said, “My focus and my movement, so I can be aggressive.”

Focus is what Stan has improved on the most during his unlikely late-career surge into the Top 5. He hasn’t learned any new shots, and, other than his serve, he hasn’t made anything markedly better. But he has learned the big-point mentality that wins matches at the Slams. While Wawrinka can still be up and down in smaller events, he has mostly been a fixture in the second week of majors over the last three years. Would he have saved those early break points against Verdasco at a smaller tournament? Would he have come up with winners when he was down 0-30, or jumped on his chance at 3-2 in the first-set tiebreaker? Maybe not.

Wawrinka will need more clutch shots to reach the second week at Flushing Meadows. With Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem in his quarter, his draw only gets younger and more dangerous from here. Wawrinka will have to keep the Stanimal on a tight leash if he wants to last long in the concrete jungle.

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