PARIS — Reigning French Open champion Stan Wawrinka is in unchartered territory. It’s not defending a major title. He traveled that road the first time after winning the 2014 Australian Open. But in his 11-year career that has included 45 Grand Slam events, Wawrinka never before has competed without his celebrated compatriot, 17-time major winner Roger Federer.

Federer, 34, pulled out of his first Grand Slam tournament since 1999 because of a back injury.

“It’s something different, for sure,” Wawrinka said on Wednesday after overcoming a slow start to dispatch Taro Daniel of Japan 7-6 (9-7), 6-3, 6-4 and reach the third round for the eighth time in the past nine years.

A farmer’s son and perpetual second fiddle of Swiss tennis, Wawrinka, 31, has tapped into his potential the past three seasons, quietly taking the national mantle from Federer.

Federer still ranks one place higher than Wawrinka at No. 4, but the younger Swiss led his nation to its first Davis Cup title in 2014 and owns two Grand Slam titles since 2013, while Federer has none.

While Wawrinka’s game has blossomed, the standards for Swiss tennis remain high, with the likes of Federer and Martina Hingis setting the bar.

“The tough thing in Switzerland sometimes is that we have had so many successful players,” Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi said.

Nor does Wawrinka fit neatly into the dominant storyline of this era of the so-called Big Four. Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have captured 40 of the past 44 major titles.

Wawrinka remains an outlier to many, but he owns as many majors, Olympic gold medals and Davis Cup championships as second-ranked Murray. When his blistering game is on – punctuated by a powerful serve, percussive forehand and one-handed backhand – he can scorch opponents.

Just ask Federer. Or No. 1 Djokovic.

During his French Open run a year ago, Wawrinka outclassed Federer in a straight-set quarterfinal victory. In the final, he handed Djokovic his only Grand Slam loss of 2015.

“So far, the best match I ever played,” Wawrinka says.

His start this year in Paris has been rockier.

Wawrinka battled back to take the final two sets during a five-set opening-round defeat of Lukas Rosol. He had an easier time against 93rd-ranked Daniel, but he is far from his level of a year ago.

“I was a little bit hesitating sometime with my game,” Wawrinka said Wednesday. “That’s why I make so many mistakes.”

A late bloomer, Wawrinka didn’t hit his career-high ranking of No. 3 until he was 29.

If he struggled to consider himself a member of the tennis elite, 14 months mostly inside the top five have helped him come around to the idea.

“I’m in my place,” he said earlier this spring. “I have no problem to be there.”

Success has its own pitfalls. Wawrinka, who has a 6-year-old daughter and divorced last year, said he felt “empty” after winning his second Grand Slam title in Paris.

“It’s just so big and so high,” he said. “After a few days you are completely empty. You get a little depressed. You don’t know where to put your feelings anymore.”

Wawrinka went back to work and finished the year strong. Seeded third here, he has won this year at Chennai and Dubai but struggled with illness at the Australian Open, where he lost in five sets to Milos Raonic of Canada in the fourth round.

The former French Open junior winner has played erratically on clay, with a quarterfinal loss to nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal at Monte Carlo but early exits at this month’s big tune-ups in Madrid and Rome.

“I don’t think that anyone expects Stan to win Roland Garros this year,” said his coach, Magnus Norman.

Before Wawrinka’s opening match, Norman said he practiced a total of 10 minutes on the terre battue at Roland Garros due to his late arrival and the first two days of rain.

“He found a way to win,” Norman said, citing Wawrinka’s ability to stay calm and fight back against Rosol. “That’s what the good players do.”