Only last week, John McEnroe gushed about Roger Federer, calling him the ‘most beautiful player’ ever to have played the game. The beauty in Federer’s game is so dazzling that sometimes blinds one to the steely grit underneath it. Federer is as much warrior as poet, and the 20-time champion was at his competitive best as he downed a rejuvenated Stan Wawrinka 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 in the quarter-final of the French Open on Tuesday.
In 2015, Wawrinka had got the better of Federer on the same court—Suzanne Lenglen, the second show court at Roland Garros—in the same round. Wawrinka went on to win the French Open that year, Federer did not turn up for the clay-court Grand Slam for the next three years.
It was a surprise when Federer announced earlier in the year that he would give clay a shot again and compete at this year’s French Open. The red dirt is grueling, Federer is aging. But the 37-year-old showed no signs of slowing down on the Parisian clay courts, romping into the last eight without dropping a set. Federer had spent seven hours and 10 minutes on court to get through his first four rounds, Wawrinka, who has had a far tougher draw and defeated Grigor Dimitrov and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the previous rounds, had taken 12 hours and 27 minutes to get to the quarter-final.
The 2015 champion has been looking in a rich vein of form once again, striking the ball heftily off both wings. He made Federer, who has waltzed on the Parisian clay with ease so far, check his step. There were times, in the second and third set, when it looked like Wawrinka’s relentless power would prove too much for the so far untested Federer.
But two points gave a measure of why Federer, at his age, is still in the game and still doing so well. In the 11th game of the third set, he was down a break point and the possibility of going 5-6 down. Seeing Federer placed behind the baseline, Wawrinka took a punt on a drop shot. Federer scooted, scooped up the ball just before it hit the ground; a surprised Wawrinka put back a weak reply, and Federer finished off the point by plopping a forehand into the empty court. Federer saved two break points in the game that lasted more than 10 minutes. It was a massive hold in a massive set.
The third-set tie-breaker once again brought forth Federer’s tenacity. After a tense exchange from the baseline, Wawrinka, seeing Federer moving up the court, positioned himself for a powerful forehand pass down the line. The ball came rocketing in; Federer stretched, flung himself in the way, stuck the racquet out, and was able to get an unbeatable angle on the backhand volley. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. Federer went 2-0 up in the tie-break, which he eventually won 7-5.
Having won 20 Grand Slam titles, more than any other male player in history, Federer has very little to prove. But the Swiss master’s willingness to still put himself on the line, get tangled in these kinds of bruising battles, is what has earned him his 44th Grand Slam semi-final. Federer thus became the second oldest man to make the semi-final at the French Open, eclipsed only by Pancho Gonzales, who made the final four at the age of 40 in 1968.
In Wawrinka, he had a rival who not only knew all his strengths but was also driven to find his own way back into the big league. The first set was close; Federer won it on a tie-break but his serving was on a different level. The 2009 champion won 91 percent of his first serve points, and conceded only five points (including the breaker) on his serve.
But Wawrinka kept within touching distance of Federer, replying to his guile with ruthless power to take the second set. It took Federer nine break point opportunities before he finally cracked Wawrinka’s serve.
That was in the eighth game of the third set, as the match reached its peak. Pure shot-makers and brave risk-takers, the two threw heavy punches at each other. Federer won 17/23 net points and cracked 24 winners in the set; Wawrinka was not too far behind at 19. The more experienced Federer had started to look like he was tiring out when he made two successive backhand errors to hand Wawrinka the break in the seventh game. But he shook off any fatigue, picked himself back, struck a glorious forehand pass to go up 0-30 on Wawrinka’s serve and give himself another chance at a break. Unable to match-up to Federer’s spike in intensity, Wawrinka conceded the break by hitting a forehand well long.
Federer had found his second wind. He gritted his way through the fourth set, which was interrupted for more than an hour at 3-3 due to rain. On resumption, Federer made a timely strike, getting a break in the ninth game to go 5-4 up and serve for the match. His nerve had held steady all day, but Federer served two double faults, his only two of the match, in the final game to give Wawrinka a glimmer of hope. But he went to his trusted weapons, serve and volley, on third match point to close out the contest in three hours and 35 minutes.
The hard-fought win means Federer will renew his famous rivalry with Rafael Nadal.
“The next opponent is ok,” Federer said jokingly of the 11-time French Open champion. “He knows how to play on clay, unfortunately. Thinking back, what a pleasure to be back at Roland-Garros. If I came back on clay, it's also perhaps to play Rafa. Here it is. I have the match."
Updated Date: Jun 05, 2019 10:27:23 IST