A sense of the tragic was an important element in ancient Greek theatre. From the opening of Oedipus Rex, for example, the chorus tells us that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. No need to read 666 pages in Joel Dickers “La Verité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert” to know who killed Nola. In ancient times, the tragic hero fought against his or her inevitable destiny which was known from the beginning. The struggle against destiny was what was tragic, not the end result which was announced by the Chorus in Act I. (How many people would have read the entirety of Dicker’s brilliant novel if they had known from the beginning who was guilty? Then again, how many impatient moderns flipped to the end of the book first to find out who did it, thereby ruining the lovely suspense the talented author weaves for 666 pages?)
How does the sense of the tragic help us to understand Stan Wawrinka’s recent loss? Defending the colors of Switzerland against the reigning Davis Cup Champions, the Czech Republic, the Vaudois won his first singles match to give Switzerland a 1-0 lead. At 1-1 after the singles, it appeared that the doubles would be decisive. Playing without the boycotting Federer, with whom he had won the Olympic Doubles title in Beijing – I will avoid any comment here on whether Federer “abandoned” his home country by not playing – Wawrinka heroically struggled with his partner only to lose 24-22 in the fifth set after seven hours, the longest match in the history of Davis Cup competition. Asked by journalists how he felt after the match, the noble Wawrinka replied that he didn’t feel the competition was lost and that he was sure his opponents were as tired as he was.
But that’s not all. We have to remember that Stan also lost a heroic 5 hour, 5 set battle against top-seeded Novak Djokovic at last month’s Australian Open in easily the finest match of his singles career and a match that Djokovic classified as befitting a final. To go down 12-10 in the fifth to the world’s top player after leading 6-1, 5-2 and then soon after to lose 24-22 after seven hours in Davis Cup competition would try anyone’s soul.
It would be too easy to label Wawrinka a loser. In the Greek sense, we could say that when he plays crucial moments he is bound to lose. In the Greek sense of tragedy, we would qualify him a tragic hero fighting against inevitable defeat. But, there is a more modern sense of the tragic hero. In that sense, we do not know the ending. The hero is a hero not because we know the ending and the tragedy is in fighting against the inevitable, rather it is because we do not know the ending and admire the warrior’s struggle which happens to end in defeat.
Stan Wawrinka is not a loser. He is a truly modern, tragic hero. Chapeau Stan for your two performances, and a greater bravo for your continued optimism in the face of two crushing defeats.