Stan Wawrinka has perhaps been the Ringo Starr of Swiss tennis. Not a drummer, of course, but like John Lennon once said of Ringo, "He isn't even the best drummer in The Beatles!" Being overshadowed somewhat by the successes of a close friend, who just happens to be the Greatest of all Time, Stan Wawrinka is an immense talent all on his own – winning three Grand Slams is no flash in the pan.
And for Wawrinka, his entry into the quarter-finals of the French Open this time around has been a trial by fire. Despite inconsistencies and injuries in the past few years, the Swiss showed why he is described as a big-match player after brushing aside ATP NextGen winner Stefanos Tsitsipas.
On Monday, and in general, Wawrinka's variation of technique has been what has won him matches and troubled his opponents. With his powerful attacking serve, Wawrinka frequently came up to the net, held his nerve against his young, already-a-champion rival, and unleashed his all-too-famous one-handed backhand.
The last two years have not been easy for Wawrinka. Following his three majors – all three distinct, and either won against Djokovic and Rafael Nadal – no mean feat, Wawrinka has struggled with a knee that has required multiple surgeries, rehab, and a recovery period that bled from 2017 into a large chunk of 2018. But for someone who dropped out of the top 200, to be able to come back enough to be seeded at a Grand Slam is not easy: Wawrinka should know.
With him ruling, at the time, near the top of the rankings consistently for years, Wawrinka's surgery put an abrupt end to his momentum, and put him out of commission for nearly two seasons. Inconsistencies, pain and early losses can and do take a significant psychological toll, and coming back from them is an uphill battle, one that is sometimes insurmountable. Indeed, for Wawrinka, who was pushed to the brink on Monday, he may well have crumbled and lost the match. The second set alone went on for 80 minutes, longer than some matches have been, and one might not have blamed the Swiss for a loss against the World No 6 on the other side of the net.
With tenacity and a drive that most, if not all of the NextGen could learn from, Wawrinka brought out every trick up his sleeve to get past Tsitsipas. Some brilliant passing shots, expert volleys, and incredibly fast serves saw the Greek scrambling to return, and ending up covered in red dirt by the end.
As he has so many times in the past, Wawrinka handled the pressure like a champion. Pushed to 27 break points by the young Greek across the net, Wawrinka saved 22; in contrast, Tsitsipas' otherwise tenacious, fighting nature failed him in the deciding set, where he got Wawrinka to breakpoint on eight separate occasions – and broke him on none of those. Wawrinka, for his part, despite the injury, pain and the fact that he was being pushed to the brink over, and over, and over again, appeared somehow unfazed. With some incredible shots that sent Tsitsipas scrambling and diving to return, Wawrinka truly had his younger opponent's back to the wall in that match, despite the first two sets going at an even keel between both players.
Numerically, there was not much to separate the pair.
The deciding set was a nail-biter for spectators, certainly, but perhaps no one more so than the two players on each side of the net. Tsitsipas led 40-0 in the opening game, and looked as though he had started wrestling control back from Wawrinka – only for Wawrinka to manage a hold of serve in the end.
Statistically too, there was not much separating the pair, but Wawrinka had 16 aces in the match, which should remind you just how accurate his serving was.
It was only at the end that fans, particularly a Roland Garros crowd cheering on their previous champion, saw Wawrinka break down in a combination of exhilaration, pride and probably complete physical exhaustion – the first hint of major emotion during that match from an otherwise stoic Swiss.
In the time the two were on court – 5 hours, 9 minutes – you could watch half a season of Game of Thrones, or if Eliud Kipchoge's times are anything to go by, run the London Marathon two and a half times over. Now, imagine holding your physicality – and your nerve, through the entirety of that time, all while battling an extremely skilled rival on the other end.
Now, Wawrinka faces his friend, rival, Olympic-winning partner and perhaps the greatest tennis has ever seen - Roger Federer, in the quarter-finals. Federer has won the pair's last six matches - but their last meeting on clay - at the 2015 French Open, went in favour of Wawrinka.
With Federer in form and breezing through wins, and Wawrinka pushed to the brink against Tsitsipas, the momentum may shift in favour of the 37-year-old. But for "Stan the Man", this match has already proven so much that the result, though of consequence for the title, may not matter emotionally as much as this match did.
For Wawrinka, and for anyone watching the match against Tsitsipas was much more than a fourth-round win. For Wawrinka, it was his chance at rebirth in the sport he has loved and won accolades at, the chance to prove himself, and the opportunity to, to put this simply, return. And not just across the net.
If this French Open has been Wawrinka's rebirth, then the match against Tsitsipas was his baptism of fire.
Updated Date: Jun 03, 2019 12:05:19 IST