French Open 2019: Fitter, stronger Stan Wawrinka shapes himself to emerge as Grand Slam threat again

At the Roland Garros Bullring, it was all about Stan Wawrinka’s charge into the final-16. The big Swiss, who won the French Open in 2015, has been on the mend for the past couple of seasons but is once again threatening to blast the draw open with his explosive talent.

 French Open 2019: Fitter, stronger Stan Wawrinka shapes himself to emerge as Grand Slam threat again

Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka reacts during his third round match against Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov. Reuters

One of the four men in this year’s draw to have won the title, Wawrinka gave a measure of his big-match play as he edged out Grigor Dimitrov in three dramatic tie-break sets, played over two days. The 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 win over the talented Bulgarian on Saturday also happened to be his 500th Tour win. More importantly though, it was the deepest run Wawrinka has made in a Grand Slam since returning from knee surgery in 2017.

“It was another great match after the run against (Christian) Garin (in the second round),” the 34-year-old told the press. “Against Grigor, it was a really tough battle. We both played well. I'm happy to have won the three tiebreaks. Today I saved some set points. I served for the match. It was an important victory for me.”

It’s an important marker in Wawrinka’s journey back into Grand Slam contention. The Swiss had undergone two surgeries on his left knee in August 2017. Last year, he had to withdraw from the ATP 1000 Masters event in Miami, Indian Wells and Madrid because of a niggle on the same knee and from the Basel Open due to a back injury.

During that time, Wawrinka struggled to get going in the Grand Slams. At last year’s French Open, he suffered a first-round loss to Spain’s Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and saw his ranking drop from 30 to 263. His best showing was a third-round finish at the 2018 US Open – not an ambition befitting a three-time Grand Slam champion.

But Wawrinka has been slowly growing into his big game this year. He made the first ATP final in two years at Rotterdam in February.

“I do feel like I’m having a second career, somehow, since I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to come back,” Wawrinka had told the official ATP website. “There were many doubts and long weeks on crutches. But I’m happy that I got through that and that I got a chance to compete again and do what I love. I missed the competition, the tour and of course the fans. It feels great to be back.”

Dimitrov has been somewhat of a whipping boy for Wawrinka in Grand Slams since his comeback. While he has lost to lesser-known names like Lopez, Tennys Sandgren (2019 Australian Open, second round) and Thomas Fabbiano (2018 Wimbledon, second round), he is 3-0 against Dimitrov in the past 10 months. And even though he had beaten the Bulgarian in the first round of Wimbledon and US Open last year, the match-up again at the French was bound to be a treat for the purists. Dimitrov may lack Wawrinka’s power, but he has enough variety and touch to elevate any contest.

It was an important match-up for the Bulgarian as well. Since winning the 2017 ATP World Tour Finals, Dimitrov has looked more lost on the super-competitive men’s tour. He’s as much in need of big results and had scalped an upset of his own by downing Marin Cilic in the previous round.

And it was only a few points—six to be precise—that separated the two during this blockbuster contest. Wawrinka won 138 points, while Dimitrov won 132. They pushed each other back and forth, corner to corner, striking some sublime groundstrokes, deft drops and testing each other’s single-handed backhands out.

The Swiss had a bigger share of the winners –57, to Dimitrov’s 36—and unforced errors – 60, to Dimitrov’s 34. But he managed to play the clutch points better.

The match had started out on Friday and Wawrinka led by two sets to nil when the match was suspended due to bad light. But the contest was just as close when it resumed on Saturday. Wawrinka made the first breakthrough, and served for the match at 5-4, but Dimitrov broke back to push it into a tie-breaker. This time it was the Swiss’ turn to stage a turnaround. He saved four set points to fight back from 2-6 down. At 8-8, when pushed into a corner, Wawrinka came up with a stunning backhand winner on the run to set up victory.

“When I had regained the level I wanted to have physically, tennistically, the relief was already there,” said Wawrinka, when asked if he was relieved after winning the match in three hours and 16 minutes. “I'm happy to be in the round of 16, but it's not the aim of my tournaments when I enter. I'm not satisfied with this. I want to have more.”

But the road will only get tougher. In the round of 16, Wawrinka is up against another stylish player with a single-handed backhand, Stefanos Tsitsipas.

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Updated Date: Jun 02, 2019 09:59:13 IST