At the 2013 US Open, the world watched as Wawrinka stepped away from the shadow of his fellow countryman.
The tournament marked the first time in the ninth-ranked player’s career of 35 Grand Slam appearances that he advanced further than Federer.
Stan the Man – who John McEnroe says has one of the most powerful backhands in professional tennis – received high acclaim from commentators. British newspaper The Guardian described him as “for the moment, at least, his country's best player”.
A spoof comic strip published on minipeople.ch depicted him as caped superhero 'Iron Stan' replacing a fleeing 'RF'.
“[Roger's] season was not as good as it usually is and mine was better than ever before,” Wawrinka tells The Local. “That changed the perspective of people, especially in Switzerland,” says the 28-year-old Lausanne native.
And Wawrinka's success is one of this season’s big tennis stories. For a small country like Switzerland to have two players in the top ten is exceptional.
“If I could explain why Switzerland has produced players like myself and Roger Federer, my friends at Swiss Tennis (the national federation supporting the development of tennis, of which Wawrinka is an ambassador) would be very happy,” says Wawrinka.
“But I won't speak about Roger, because he is an exception. You cannot produce another Roger.”
Wawrinka, who has Polish ancestry, started playing tennis when he was eight years old. “I started practising with my former coach Dimitri Zavialoff,” he says. His older brother and two younger sisters also play tennis. “Our families were friends and we often spent the holidays together.”
By 14, he was playing international junior events. At 15, he began the satellite circuit and, in 2003, aged 18, he clinched the Roland Garros junior title on clay – his favourite surface.
In 2006, he finished in the world Top 40 and, in 2008, he reached No 9. The same year, he won a doubles gold medal with Federer at the Beijing Olympics.
In an interview with DEUCE Magazine in 2010, Wawrinka joked that since reaching the top ten and winning the gold medal, he had been recognized more – which maybe “helps get a table in a busy restaurant!”
More importantly though, this year he has regained his career high of World No 9 (after finishing in the top 20 in 2011 and 2012) – and has proved he can play on a par with the best in the world.
After defeating fifth-ranked Tomas Berdych and third-ranked Andy Murray, and only narrowly losing to world number one Novak Djokovic in the US Open semi-final, Wawrinka went on to reach the semi-finals of the Malaysian Open in September.
“We are extremely happy for and proud of Stan that he is finally exploiting his immense potential,” René Stammbach, president of Swiss Tennis, tells The Local.
“He is very hard-working and deserves all the success and attention he gets. We would love to see the premiere of having two Swiss tennis players participate at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals of the eight best players in the world.”
But with success must come defeat, and Wawrinka has a tattoo on his left arm to symbolize the many times he has bounced back from failure. It reads in English: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'
“As a tennis player you lose all the time,” says Wawrinka. “There’s only one player who goes home without losing each week. Even if you play well, you often end up as the loser towards the end of the week. You have to keep working hard, believe in yourself and enjoy what you are doing.”
He looks with an equally positive attitude upon the tough climate he finds himself in, playing among a top tier of players who are always difficult to beat.
“It’s terrific to be part of this great moment in tennis history,” he says. “When I came on tour Roger was already around and I learned a lot from him. Rafa (Rafael Nadal) is an amazing fighter and a very nice person. I played two of my best matches ever against Novak (Djokovic) and those matches have been very important for my 2013 season.”
One of the tournaments Wawrinka looks forward to is Swiss Indoors Basel, held in late October. “We don’t have many ATP events in Switzerland. It’s always a pleasure to play at home whether it’s in Gstaad, Basel or at the Davis Cup,” he says. “The Swiss Indoors is a great event with high quality draws, and the atmosphere in the stadium is amazing.”
Playing at home means he can spend more time with his wife, former television presenter Ilham Vuilloud, and their three-year-old daughter, Alexia.
“Ilham is doing a great job and I’m grateful to have such a beautiful family,” he says. “Alexia doesn’t like flying too much and I never have a lot of time for them when they come to a tournament. But as soon as I come home I try to spend as much time as possible with my family.”
Looking back to the US Open, Wawrinka reveals he will never forget the match against Djokovic. “The hard work paid off and I saw that I am able to challenge the best and be very dangerous,” he says.
But the best Swiss tennis player, he insists, is still Federer. “[Roger is] the greatest player of all time and I would never compare myself to him. I’m sure that he’ll be back stronger soon and he still is one of the toughest competitors out there.”