Sharing not only a profession but a passport with two of the sport’s most luminous stars, Wawrinka and Troicki have worn the uncomfortable label of the second-best players from their two small countries.  On one hand, their diminished stature has allowed them to escape the intrusive scrutiny to which their compatriots subject Federer and Djokovic.  On the other hand, the Swiss #2 and Serbian #2 must eye their nation’s tennis juggernauts wistfully at times, knowing with painful clarity that they cannot challenge the hegemony of the two #1s over the hearts and minds of their countrymen.  Nevertheless, both Wawrinka and Troicki have surged to unexpected accomplishments during the last several months as they aim to emerge from the shadows that loom above them.

Stanislas Wawrinka - 2011 Australian Open - Day 7

Once a mere acolyte in the Order of St. Roger, Wawrinka long seemed content to play the role of best supporting actor against the ATP elite.  The meekly subordinate tone of his relationship with Federer trickled into his clashes with other prominent figures, such as Djokovic and Nadal.  Recurrently testing the Serb and the Spaniard, the Swiss #2 failed to muster the self-belief required to tighten his grasp over matches that hovered within range but ultimately slipped away.  On the most momentous occasion of his career thus far, he largely outplayed Djokovic for a set and a half in the 2008 Rome final but could not quite capture crucial break points.  Likewise, he unexpectedly outslugged Nadal from the baseline through a captivating first set at last year’s Rogers Cup before sagging in the second set after a tiebreak eluded him.   The Swiss #2 always has enjoyed a balanced, reliable groundstroke game, sturdy fitness, and generally sensible shot selection, but the relentless intensity demanded for such upsets continued to lie dormant.

Enter former Safin guru Peter Lundgren, armed with a personality and a pair of lungs as overflowing as his girth.  Determined to awaken the “inner beast” in his pupil, Lundgren perhaps injected his own bellicosity into the unassuming Wawrinka.  As his coach exhorted him with stentorian bellows, the Swiss charged to the quarterfinals of consecutive hard-court majors in New York and Melbourne.  At both of those Slams, he not only defeated but dominated a pair of prominent opponents against whom his former self might well have succumbed.  Avenging a limp straight-sets loss to Murray at an earlier US Open, Wawrinka rebounded from an early deficit to ambush this top-five foe.  Expected to falter when victory beckoned as he had in the past, the Swiss #2 instead sharpened his focus and elevated the pressure on an increasingly irked Scot, who retreated further behind the baseline and into a fog of resignation.  The only Swiss man to reach the quarterfinals at this year’s Australian Open without dropping a set, Wawrinka dispatched Roddick with a nearly bulletproof performance that denied the American even a flicker of hope.  Unflustered by the atmosphere of a Rod Laver night session, Federer’s understudy rose to the occasion with a 67-winner barrage that finally swung the cameras in his direction.

To be sure, the limits to Wawrinka’s progress emerged a round later when he summoned scant resistance against an imperious Federer, whom not even Lundgren can intimidate.  And not enough time has passed to determine whether the Swiss #2 can embed his coach’s ferocity within himself, or whether his decision to separate from his family and focus exclusively upon tennis will exact an emotional toll.  Yet he has evolved into a distinctly more compelling player to watch than before his recent transformation, a statement that also applies to his Serbian counterpart.

Viktor Troicki - Serbia v France - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Three

Overshadowed much less sharply by Djokovic than Wawrinka by Federer, Troicki once slipped just as spinelessly into the role of understudy.  Like his Swiss counterpart, the Serbian #2 long struggled to channel his competitive instincts into positive energy rather than allowing his perfectionism to gnaw at him unforgivingly after each squandered opportunity.  This fatalism surfaced during a loss to Nadal at the 2008 US Open, where he tested the Spaniard through the first set and a half.  A few sparkling Spanish winners later, though, his confidence melted away to leave behind a third-set bagel that spoke less to his opponent’s brilliance than his own malaise.  In meetings with Murray at Miami and Wimbledon the following year, similarly sorry spectacles unfolded as Troicki slumped through listless losses against the Scot.

Unlike the 14th-ranked Wawrinka, the 24th-ranked Troicki derived his recent surge in self-belief without external impetus and thus may find it more durable.  While some observers would trace his emergence to the Davis Cup final, we can find traces of his reversal in what initially seemed just a gallant defeat.  Bombarding newly minted US Open champion Nadal through three scintillating sets, the Serb managed to neutralize the Spaniard’s brisk returns with a serve that pinpointed unpredictable corners of the box.  Rafa appeared to assert his authority with a break deep in the final set, but his unruffled foe then proceeded to break the world #1 when he served for the match—and then once again to create the same opportunity for himself.  Unable to convert that chance, Troicki battled Nadal toe to toe through a labyrinthine tiebreak that illustrated his ability to dictate rallies with either groundstroke wing.  The challenger succumbed to the champion on his own terms, slapping a forehand just a trifle too aggressively towards the sideline on the 16th point of the tiebreak.  Even before that match, moreover, Troicki had edged within three service holds (and later six points) from toppling a heat-drained Djokovic at the US Open, a feat more notable than anything that Wawrinka has accomplished against Federer

Whereas many competitors would have left those contests demoralized, Troicki drew confidence from them that propelled him towards his first career title.  Two short weeks after his collision with Nadal, the Serb demonstrated his newfound resilience by erasing a one-set deficit against Baghdatis in the Moscow final.  The supreme test did not arrive until a December afternoon in Belgrade, however, where a player who had compiled a meager 5-5 Davis Cup record confronted the task of collecting the decisive fifth rubber in his nation’s first Davis Cup final.  Although the surface clearly tilted in his favor against the net-rushing Llodra, one still must applaud the poise with which he subdued the more experienced Frenchman.   Whatever he accomplishes henceforth, Troicki likely will regard his passing-shot winner on the final point as his signature moment.

Still in the prime of their careers, Wawrinka and Troicki will seek to consolidate their momentum in 2011.  As so many tennis arrivistes have discovered, this task can prove the most imposing of all.  Will the two #2s subside into obscurity once more, or will they embrace their new mission undaunted?

Advertisements