If you take Roger Federer at face value, his quest for a title was little more than a backdrop to the spectacle of Swiss tennis that was on display in the Monte Carlo finale Sunday.
After his semifinal win over Novak Djokovic a round earlier, Federer wistfully spoke to the moments the Spaniards, French and even the Americans have had on the same court in recent years. Federer's win put him in the title match against fellow countryman Stanislas Wawrinka, marking the first time in 14 years since there had been an all-Swiss final, when Marc Rosset beat a fledgling Federer in Marseille.
“This one is clearly very special, especially with the way he's been playing the last few months, the number of hours we spent together on court either playing doubles or practice, the times we've talked tennis,” Federer told reporters before the final. “It's nice living a moment like this together in a finals. It's really wonderful.”
But the emergence Wawrinka, the Australian Open champ, has altered the order of tennis’ hierarchy, while giving the Swiss a true intra-national rivalry. Now, four months into the tennis season, there appears to be clear order within the country.
Wawrinka climbed his way out of a one-set deficit to beat Federer 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2 to win Monte Carlo, picking up his first career Masters series title. Make that one major and one Masters title for Wawrinka in 2014. MVP so far, anyone?
"Well, it already change last year when I start to first make my first quarter in French Open, final in Madrid, my first semifinal in US Open," Wawrinka told reporters afterward. "I start to realize I be able to beat all the players. That's what I am doing this year and I'm doing well.
"I'm surprised where I am, but I'm not surprised when I see how I play on the court, how I move, the way I'm winning those match."
Wawrinka ended an 11-match losing streak against Federer, just months after he snapped 12- and 14-match losing streaks to Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, in Melbourne. Wawrinka, who is now 6-0 versus top-10 players this season, became only the third player outside the Big Four in the past 37 Masters Series events to win a title.
"I can see that when mentally I'm there and I'm fighting, I can play tennis; I can beat all the player," Wawrinka said.
All four of Federer’s Monte Carlo finals have ended in defeat. From 2006 to 2008, it was -- surprise, surprise -- Rafael Nadal who ultimately quelled the Swiss in those matches. Earlier this week, though, Nadal was bounced by his own countryman David Ferrer, and with Federer taking care of Djokovic on Saturday, the journey seemed a little less obstructed for the 17-time Slam champ.
But behind a barrage of unrelenting groundstrokes, Wawrinka wore down Federer, who, in the third set, looked every bit his 32 years of age. Wawrinka moved closer to the baseline, attacking each shot with aplomb while keeping Federer on his heels. Wawrinka won an astounding 13 of 14 points on his first serve in the final set, while breaking Federer’s serve twice and, ultimately, Federer’s spirit.
"I start to play more aggressive, trying to push him more," Wawrinka said. "Yeah, when you win a match like this, it's only one or two points, especially in the tiebreak. But I think I did a great tiebreak. I was serving big and being really aggressive.
"Then I took the advantage at the beginning of the third set. I saw that he was a little bit tired. Me, I was playing better and better, especially moving better."
Switzerland is a relatively small country, with a population just south of 8 million, and in terms of tennis stardom, the population doesn’t surpass the fingers on one hand. Only four players on both tours are currently ranked in the top 100. Wawrinka and Federer are the third- and fourth-ranked players, while Stefanie Voegele (No. 77) and Belinda Bencic (No. 91) occupy the sub-century mark on the WTA.
A little more than a year ago, it was hard to imagine we'd be speaking of Wawrinka in the same context as Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. He was a solid player with a ranking drifting back and forth between Nos. 10 and 30, but certainly not someone who we'd have picked to win significant tournaments on tour. But after coaching changes and a boost in confidence, Wawrinka is slugging the ball off both wings -- perhaps more ferociously than anyone at the moment.
"I think he served better," Federer said. "He definitely found his range. As the match went on, he started to feel more and more comfortable. I struggled to put him under pressure enough. I think it was a bit of both players: him raising his game, me maybe going down a notch. I think it's a big match, regardless of the opponent, because it's a finals. Playing Stan just adds to the excitement in some ways."
When Wawrinka finally finished off Federer on Sunday, he raised his arms in victory but with a muted celebration in deference to taking down the player who has meant so much to tennis, Switzerland and himself.
"Today it was a personal challenge," Wawrinka said. "Playing against Roger is always very special. He is the one who is really able to mix it up. For me, winning a match is already complicated, but against him it's even more difficult."
With the French Open starting exactly one month from today, based on the way things have gone so far, there’s little reason not to believe Wawrinka won’t be doing some more arm-raising when all is said and done.
"It's normal that I would be a favorite for the French Open, but I don't think so because I'm very far from players like Rafa, Novak and Roger," Wawrinka said. "Anyway, I will not change anything in the way I approach the tournaments."