MELBOURNE, Australia – Stan Wawrinka and his surgically-repaired knee traveled all the way to Australia without even knowing if he – they – would play.
Even the decision to fly down was made at the last minute.
Finally, after a practice on Saturday, Wawrinka gave his knee the green light.
There is still pain when he makes certain movements. He hasn’t played a match in six months, not even an exhibition match. He doesn’t even know if he can even get through a set or two – let alone a potential five-setter against his first-round opponent, Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania.
But the victory is in his presence in Melbourne. And the ability to practice with the best players in the game, to push the knee several hours a day and push through the inevitable little setbacks, was worth the trip even if he didn’t play.
Heavy practice schedule
Wawrinka practiced with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. He practiced with Tomas Berdych and Gaël Monfils and Grigor Dimitrov. He didn’t spare himself.
“It’s a big victory. It’s the best that I could have dreamed when I had the surgery, is to be here sitting in front of you and to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to play the first match.’ That’s something really good from my side, especially from the knee. The knee is getting way better. I still have a lot of work to do physically and also tennis-wise to be to my top level,” Wawrinka said Saturday.
“I’m going to take the time I need for that. I know I need to get through those — I need to start somewhere anyway. I think here was a good start. It’s a good place to start, to get pushed, to see also mentally how I’m going to react, how I’m going to feel when I’m going to be playing matches.”
Wawrinka said that the decision to take a pass on the Tie Break Tens exhibition Wednesday was unrelated to the decision to play the Australian Open. He considers the format, the quick points, the pace, as something completely different – something he wasn’t ready for.
Happy to be back
The smile on Wawrinka’s face Saturday said it all. As with the other players who have been out for so many months, he missed it.
And when there is surgery involved, there are always fears that it won’t come back all the way.
After eight weeks on crutches, Wawrinka’s heavy-duty exercise as he began his rehab was … walking.
He wrestled with feeling too sorry for himself publicly, even if he felt terrible, lonely, sad at times.
Wawrinka has enough perspective to realize that there are far bigger problems in life than an athlete with an injury.
“It’s tough to explain because some people will always think, ‘C’mon, you have (an) amazing life, why you complain, why you complain about feeling not great? It’s always difficult, what you can tell people and what you have to keep for yourself,” he said. “For sure, I’m not comparing myself to a lot of people where they get a big problem in their life. It’s just an injury in a career. (But) it can be really tough for an athlete to get through this.”
Unlike the other injured stars, Wawrinka somehow didn’t fall out of the top 10 during his absence. That can change in a hurry, though, with semifinalist’s points to defend in Melbourne.
But he was gone so long, it’s easy to forget the impressive results he put in during the first half of the season. Wawrinka reached the final at Indian Wells, and at the French Open.
Coach departure stung
But as he sat at home rehabbing the knee, needing all the support he could get, Wawrinka was rocked by the departure of coach Magnus Norman.
With Norman, he graduated from the “just below the top level” type of player to being a Grand Slam champion and a threat at nearly every tournament.
He wasn’t angry. He was hurt. Because he considers Norman like family.
“When you in a tough place like that as an athlete, you want the people who know you the best to stay around you, to stick with you. You want your team, your family to be here. They will help you the most to get back where you want to be,” he said. “For me, Magnus, he was my coach, but he was a friend, even closer than a friend. It was tough to know that he will not be here to start again with me.”
60 per cent return rate
The tally, so far, is that three of the five question marks will make their date in Melbourne.
Kei Nishikori wasn’t quite ready, and will start back in a week’s time at a Challenger in California.
Andy Murray had hip surgery and hopes to be back for the grass.
Djokovic’s situation seems positive for the moment, although we’ll know more when he plays his first match Tuesday against American Donald Young.
Raonic played a match in Brisbane, and filled in for Wawrinka in the Tie Break Tens. That he lost in Brisbane to young Aussie Alex de Minaur, in hindsight, doesn’t seem nearly as bad a loss given that the teenager has done since then.
But we’ll also know more when Raonic faces Lukas Lacko of Slovakia on Tuesday.
The “big return” on the men’s side at the Australian Open wasn’t as complete, or as edifying, as it would have been had all the injured players returned at full strength.
That would have been off the charts.
But it’s a start.