On his third match point, Stanislas Wawrinka looped a backhand. It landed right at the baseline; the depth of the shot forcing an error from Gael Monfils. That sealed the 12th successive set for the Swiss at this year’s French Open.
While the headlines at Roland Garros have focussed on Rafael Nadal’s irresistible form and the struggles of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, Wawrinka has comfortably flown under the radar. On Monday, he overcame a back niggle and a spirited fight by Frenchman Monfils to win 7-5, 7-6 (7), 6-2 in two hours and 43 minutes to enter the quarter-final without dropping a set.
The 2015 champion, despite his big build and bigger game, has made it a habit of hiding in plain sight in this golden era of men’s tennis. Not many gave him a chance when he made his first Grand Slam final at the 2014 Australian Open, or in fact the subsequent championship clashes against Djokovic at 2015 Roland Garros and 2016 US Open. But the Swiss outperformed everyone’s expectations, winning all three finals. As of today, he has as many Majors as Andy Murray.
In this age of the ‘Big Four’, everyone is measured against them for consistency. Wawrinka doesn’t quite meet the brief there, but he has the game to compete and, as he has shown, beat any of them on a given day. Although the backhand is the sharpest weapon in his arsenal, he has a cracking forehand and steady serve to go with it. The Swiss has no apparent weaknesses in his game, but his temperament means he rarely goes into a tournament as a favourite.
The cheeky ‘Stan the Man’ emblazoned on his tees and gear is a nod to that.
After an indifferent start to the year, the Swiss had shown some form by winning the ATP 250 Geneva Open. It was his first title of the season. Though he is yet to drop a set at the 2017 French Open, it hasn’t been an easy ride for Wawrinka.
He has gone into uncomfortable tie-break scuffles with Jozef Kovalik and Alexandr Dolgopolov in the first two rounds. In the third, he came up against the mercurial Fabio Fognini, who has an immense capacity to self-destruct. Wawrinka weathered an inspired start from the Italian to come away a 7-6 (2), 6-0, 6-2 winner.
But a bigger test awaited him on Monday. Monfils was the final French hope in the men’s draw and the packed Philippe-Chatrier Court got behind him. The French crowd comes with a reputation to needle, and had driven women’s defending champion Garbine Muguruza to tears against Kristina Mladenovic the previous day. And Monfils was responding to that energy, running and sliding on the red clay to pull off some spectacular, defensive tennis.
Wawrinka fought back from a break down to take the first set and had to resist the relentless pressure from Monfils in the second. But the more experienced player of the two, Wawrinka handled the pressure situations and the swirling wind better. He made 35 winners and wasn’t afraid to move forward, winning 26 points of 34 approaches to the net. But the most telling stat of the match was the break point conversion: Wawrinka won five of seven break points while Monfils could take only two of the 14 break opportunities.
“It was a really close two sets. I think was a tough match, tough conditions, a lot of tension, because we know each other so well. So it was important to stay there, to stay strong with myself, and I'm happy to get through this match,” Wawrinka, 32, said after the match.
Wawrinka, in the words of Samuel Beckett tattooed on his arm, hasn’t always been able to ‘fail better’. Too many times he had given up, and given in. Only in the past three years he has buckled down to realise his potential. His coach Magnus Norman’s influence has been immense. The wise Swede, who had also guided the gifted Robin Soderling to the 2009 French Open final, has anchored Wawrinka’s talent and made him a calmer, more decisive player. Despite the evolution, Wawrinka’s form still remains unpredictable from one tournament to another.
“I’m not as strong as the big four — they are winning everything,” the Swiss had said after stunning Djokovic in four sets in the 2015 French Open final. “I’m not as good as they are but I’m good enough to win two Grand Slam tournaments. I can beat them in Major tournaments — in a semi-final, in a final — but the big four will always be the big four. I don’t want to be in comparison with them. I want to make progress and strides.”
On Monday, as Monfils faded away in the third set, Wawrinka powered on, punching those monstrous groundstrokes to underline an impressive performance. It was the kind of performance that showed that Wawrinka was dangerous again.
Updated Date: Jun 06, 2017 10:52 AM