Translation of the interview with Stan Wawrinka in l’Équipe, print edition Wednesday 10 January 2018, pages 18-19 and online https://abonnes.lequipe.fr/Tennis/Article/Stan-wawrinka-je-me-suis-senti-a-bout/865299 by Régis Testelin.
MONTE CARLO – After five months of suffering, doubt and sweat, who knows if he’ll be able to put on a good performance at the Australian Open? The Swiss hasn’t played since his first round loss against Daniil Medvedev at Wimbledon. In August, he underwent two knee operations, one arthroscopic, another to fix a cartilage hole. Five months later, he’s in Melbourne, where he’s supposed to take part in a “Tie Break Tens” exhibition with Nadal and Djokovic [he withdrew with a shoulder problem – Mark] which might give some indication of his level and perhaps reassure himself. We spent a morning with him in the middle of December at the Monte Carlo Country Club to talk about the injury, overwork and the depression what occasionally hits even the most solid players on the tour.
After three exceptional seasons, your knee gave out. Do you think you pushed too hard?
When you’re always trying to reach as high as you can, you push the machine to the limits. Still, I was careful: I never played four or five tournaments in a row, I always gave myself recuperation periods. But I’ve always known that this sport, at this level, wasn’t good for the body. You know there’ll be problems later on.
Pushing to the limit until breaking, that’s extracting the best from oneself while getting consumed. How is that experienced?
In all sports, when you reach this level, you consume yourself. It’s not by chance that I’m injured at thirty-two, that Novak is at thirty, if Roger and Rafa were. These injuries are results of wear and tear and of numbers. But when you have the chance of getting to the top, it’s a nice wear and tear. Besides, winning is addictive – you always want more. To get more, you need to do more, to do more you push yourself even more, and at some point, it gives out. When you’re on top, everything’s tougher. What I did the last few years was an opportunity, but it was demanding. I get the impression I’m on my way to the cemetery, but I telling all this with a smile [he laughs]. I’m trying to make people understand what we go through.
Do you have the impression of having pushed your body to the burnout point?
These last couple of years, I’ve pushed too far, too long, and the motor often overheated. But it’s not just physical, it’s mental too. People watch us play tennis, but we have a life outside of that which means … I felt at the end of my rope these last years; I had mental gaps. Burnout is too strong a word, because people who burnout live at the extremes. But it happens that I experience feeling at a breaking point, of telling myself “I can’t keep this up”.
It’s the interaction between what’s happening around you and the on-court demands?
It’s of a piece. If you have a full life that wears on you, you’ll get tired on the job. That applies to all trades, but even more in ours. You don’t win Grand Slams without pushing to your personal limits.
Does that mean that you’d like to change some things to better manage?
It’s difficult to change things when I see what doing those things led to: three Grand Slams and a final. That means I did those things well. If I’d rested more, I’d never have gone as far. This injury will make cleaning out all but my closest entourage easier. I won’t be spending energy on people who aren’t closest any longer and I’ll be fresher.
How did you experience this period of inactivity?
Everything weighed on me: walking with crutches, being off the Tour, doubt, not being able to do anything. When you stop for a longer period, it’s very bad for your body. It will take some time, for example, to recover full flexion on my serve. But it’s not just that – rehabilitating my shoulder will also take time. The whole body needs to be reconditioned to being under pressure and tension.
What was the hardest to recover in the last few weeks?
Knee flexion. I can’t get down very low. Reflexive movements are difficult. But, I’m playing well, my shots are good, my tennis is there.
How much were you in doubt?
Inside, I was always sure that I’d find the solution to get to a certain level. Which level, I don’t yet know. But this re-education was tougher than I thought. I wasn’t expecting it. All those phases where you had to reach the limit without going over to protect the knee.
You’ve said that without the help of Pierre Paganini, your fitness coach, you would have quit.
To come back from so far, I need someone who knows my limits. He was a lifesaver because I had moments of depression where I felt alone. What I missed the most was competing, the adrenaline, the excitement, all those things you can only experience first-hand. Stress, even when you feel bad, is basically a good thing. I was in a down period.
Would you say the toughest part to get to a Slam semi-final is behind you or ahead of you?
I’d say behind. Coming to play for two weeks in Monte Carlo in December with the guys, being able to hit with Dimitrov and realising that, despite everything, the level is there, that helped me. From the first training session, I felt that the tennis wasn’t going to be a problem. But when you lose confidence, persuading yourself that you’ll come back is tough.
Knowing that a player like Rafael Nadal came back from long injury periods, does that help?
No. I mean, it’s possible, but everyone’s different. Obviously, it’s tougher coming back from a knee operation than a wrist injury, for example, because with a wrist injury, you can keep working on everything else physical. But, tennis-wise, it’s tougher coming back from a wrist injury, so … Everyone manages their own injury; you can’t compare.
Magnus Norman, who’s been your coach since 2013, suddenly left you in October.
I didn’t see that coming. It was a shock and a disappointment. I’ll always acknowledge what we experienced together, but the timing was difficult. When you start again from zero, you need people around you who know you so you can recover your lost confidence. He has his reasons [spend more time with his family] and I accept them. We’ll delve more into the reasons for the break at a good meal. It will be easier then. Thanks to him, I won three Slams, and they’ll never be erased.
You say you want to play another three or four years. Will one of your goals be detaching more from results and taking advantage of that?
– Yes, but that will be impossible. The more the years pass, the more difficult it is to look back and tell yourself, “OK, I lost but it doesn’t matter.” There’s less time left, and you can’t miss your chances.
Translated by MAN
*Edited to fix an incorrect date.