His mind-over-matter, index-finger-to-temple gesture has all but become the official logo of Stan Wawrinka, Inc. It's the Swiss star's go-to reflex in big-match moments; a reminder that you can have all the shots, all the technique in the world, but what often wins the battle is what you have between your ears.
Now just a Wimbledon title away from a career Grand Slam, the multi-surface wonder comes off as a fierce competitor who is in full control on the biggest of stages. But what few people knew prior to his run to the 2016 US Open title, is that he often wrestles with nerves. In the moments before taking the court against Novak Djokovic, a match he would go on to win 6-7(1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, Wawrinka was so stressed that he was shaking and crying in the locker room, seeking guidance from his coach, Magnus Norman.
"I was really nervous like never before," he said.
"I had that many times. As an athlete, I think we're all nervous," Wawrinka confided in Indian Wells, where the 31-year-old has quietly played his way into the BNP Paribas Open semifinals. "We all deal differently with the nerves, with the pressure, those stress moments when you really don't feel good with your body. We all have that. You have to accept it. You have to deal with it. Most important is you need to accept it. Once you accept it, you can deal with it and find a way to feel better. That's what I did at the US Open. I started to focus on the tennis, to focus on what I was doing. I was in the final of the US Open, a Grand Slam. That meant I was playing good. So if you're playing good, focusing on what you're doing against this player, how you want to beat him, then all those little thoughts you have in your head, all those little bad thoughts, stress, it disappears little by little."
Wawrinka is synonymous with the artistry of his sweeping, one-handed backhand -- long one of the most lethal weapons in the game. But back in his early junior days, he hit a two-fister. It wasn't until he was 11 that his first coach, Dimitri Zavialoff, instructed him to switch. At first, he struggled. He lost a lot of points. It took time to build up his strength. But he eventually got the hang of it. Like his world-class backhand, the No. 3-ranked baseliner says dealing with nerves is a skill that can be learned, too.
"I think I'm the example that it can be done, because I wasn't that good when I was younger," he said. "Before I started to win those big matches, I was losing a lot of important matches 7-6 in the third, or big five-set matches against top players because I was nervous. I didn't know how to deal with my nerves. I think there are many ways how to learn it. The most important is to know yourself, to accept it, to try to see what you can do and change, to have a great team around you. I have Pierre Paganini, who knows everything about me, my tennis life, my private life, my fitness life. And he helped me so much going through all those years to try to become a better tennis player. I had Magnus, who also helped in a great moment for me. He showed me how to win a Grand Slam. All those little things -- that's the way I learned."
Fine-tuning a backhand happens on the court. But when it comes to mental toughness, it's honed in a variety of ways. There's no manual, no definitive how-to book.
"I think we're all different," Wawrinka asserted. "I think we all need to find how to do it. For me, it was a mix between some conversation, some trust from my team, and also a lot of practice on the court, on the tennis court. It's simple, because at the end of the day you play tennis. You're on the court, you have balls, and you have a player in front of you who you want to beat. So if you play better than him, you have better chance to beat him. All those little things make you understand better what you have to do to win those important moments."
Wawrinka will put those skills to the test in his next match against first-time ATP World Tour Masters 1000 semifinalist Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain, whom he's never lost to in two previous encounters. You'll forgive him if he has some pre-match jitters. It's nothing he hasn't experienced before.