More than anything else, it was Stan Wawrinka’s shining hour, the grittiest major ever for Serena Williams, a gigantic step forward for Lucie Safarova, and a noble failure for Rafael Nadal. Last, but far from least, it was an unmistakable triumph in defeat for Novak Djokovic; his grace, decency, generosity and class after losing the final to Wawrinka left many observers misty-eyed, and deeply moved.
I just returned from Paris a few days ago, and enjoyed Roland Garros immensely. Here are my most lasting impressions.
The 30-year-old Swiss had done very little along the clay court circuit this year to lead his growing band of admirers to believe he would win his second Grand Slam tournament and his first on the red clay of Roland Garros. In his appearances at other events on the dirt, Wawrinka had lost in the round of 16 at both Monte Carlo and Madrid to Grigor Dimitrov. He played a terrific match to stop Rafael Nadal in Rome, but then fell tamely 6-4, 6-2 against Roger Federer in the semifinals. And in his last pre-Roland Garros tune-up, Wawrinka was ousted by the Argentinian left-hander Federico Delbonis in the quarterfinals of Geneva.
Those clay results leading up to Paris were not encouraging for Wawrinka or anyone in his circle, but he found his form convincingly at Roland Garros nonetheless. The No. 8 seed started peaking in the third round when he crushed Stevie Johnson in straight sets. He followed with an impressive 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 triumph over No. 12 seed Gilles Simon, and then faced Federer in the quarterfinals on Suzanne Lenglen court.
That match was played in abysmal conditions, with the wind swirling heavily and unpredictably throughout the battle. Yet Wawrinka performed magnificently in that contest, overcoming his adversary from the baseline with brilliantly sustained control and aggression, serving with astonishing power and precision despite the burdensome wind, controlling the tempo almost entirely. Wawrinka was unblinking in confronting a man who had beaten him in 16 of 18 previous career meetings. Both wins for Wawrinka had been in Monte Carlo on clay, but his performance in their most recent appointment at Rome was abysmal.
Yet Wawrinka took apart Federer 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (4) in Paris with sweepingly high voltage efficiency and absolute self-assurance. Wawrinka saved all four break points against him in the opening set but did not face another over the last two sets. He never lost his serve despite connecting with only 54% of his first serves. When he did get that first delivery in, Wawrinka won 44 of 50 points (88%). He also took 26 of 42 second serve points (61%). Federer won only 67% of his first serve points and 56% on second serve. Meanwhile, Wawrinka unleashed 43 winners, 15 more than Federer. He overpowered Federer from the baseline, rushed him out of one rally after another, beat him to the punch repeatedly, and let his serve do the talking for him all the way through.
That admirable piece of business over the No. 2 seed sent Wawrinka into a semifinal confrontation against No. 14 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Confronting a popular Frenchman in the penultimate round of the world’s premier clay court tournament in front of Tsonga’s home fans was an arduous assignment. But the Swiss handled it beautifully, picking apart the vulnerable backhand flank of Tsonga. Wawrinka bolted to a 6-3, 4-2 lead before nerves cost him the second set, which he lost in a tie-break. Somehow, Wawrinka made it to a third set tie-break after saving six break points (spread across three different service games) during that pivotal set.
Wawrinka swept four consecutive points from 3-3 in that sequence, broke Tsonga at the start of the fourth set, and came through to record a 6-3, 6-7 (1), 7-6 (3), 6-4 victory. He picked away at that Tsonga backhand incessantly, and saved six more break points in the fourth set without losing his serve. In fact, the resolute Wawrinka fought off 16 of the 17 break points against him in the four sets. That discipline, determination and clutch play propelled him into the final.
There he collided with Djokovic, who was a heavy favorite to collect his first French Open crown, complete a career sweep of the four majors (and thus become only the eighth man ever to realize that feat), and put himself at the halfway point in a quest for a Grand Slam in 2015; the last man to be in that position was Jim Courier in 1992. Moreover, Djokovic was bidding to establish himself as only the third man ever to take the four majors in a single year. The last man to do it was Rod Laver in 1969, when the red-headed Australian won his second Grand Slam.
In any case, Djokovic had stopped Wawrinka in 17 of 20 career head to head showdowns. They had gone five sets against each other in four of their last seven meetings, including a semifinal this year at the Australian Open that was won by Djokovic 6-0 in the final set. Yet Djokovic has often cast aside Wawrinka comprehensively; when they met last year in London at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, the Serbian accounted for the Swiss 6-3, 6-0.
This time around, Djokovic won the first set 6-4, and stood two sets away from the coveted career Grand Slam. But he was too often at Wawrinka’s mercy as the Swiss blasted away off both sides unhesitatingly from the backcourt. Wawrinka lost that set with some costly mistakes at the wrong times, but he found his range gradually and had the Serbian in all kinds of trouble during the second set. Yet Djokovic held on until 4-5. He had 30-0 in that tenth game, but his forehand down the line approach lacked severity and depth. Wawrinka cracked a backhand passing shot winner, and then walloped a forehand down the line winner. At 30-30, Djokovic made an inexplicable backhand unforced error. Wawrinka took the next point to seal the set 6-4 on a run of four crucial points in a row.
It was one set all, but Djokovic was deflated and disconsolate. While Wawrinka captured the third set and released a stream of 15 winners—dictating the rallies regularly—Djokovic was kept at bay. The Swiss took the set comfortably. In breaking Djokovic for 4-2, Wawrinka released four outright winners consecutively. He took that set commandingly.
Djokovic managed to move out in front 3-0 in the fourth set, largely because Wawrinka played one loose game on serve. But the Swiss secured three straight games for 3-3. In the seventh game, Djokovic was down 15-40, but he went boldly on the attack at this crisis point in the match. An angled forehand volley opened the court for a forehand volley down the line winner to make it 30-40, and then Djokovic celebrated his signature moment of the match. He came forward again, and Wawrinka sent a blinding backhand passing shot that had winner written all over it.
But Djokovic lunged to his left and pulled off a nifty backhand volley winner. Ignited, he held on for 4-3, and then surged to 0-40 in the following game. Here he was at triple break point, poised to move ahead 5-3, seemingly on the verge of forcing a fifth set. That might have been more than the Swiss could take. But Wawrinka rose to the occasion with braveness and composure, putting on a bravura display of shotmaking that symbolized his entire performance that day. A penetrating forehand approach led to a forehand volley winner: 15-40. A body serve to the forehand set up a sparkling backhand down the line winner: 30-40. A service winner down the T was unstoppable: deuce. Wawrinka remained bold to win the next two points and reach 4-4.
He broke Djokovic in the ninth game and then served for the match, moving to 40-30 and match point. Wawrinka’s first serve down the T narrowly missed, and Djokovic got to the net to win that point and soon reached break point, only to miss an inside-out forehand. That shot is one of the best in his arsenal but it was well below par against Wawrinka, as was his backhand down the line. Djokovic resorted too frequently to the backhand drop shot, and that tactic backfired often. Djokovic simply did not have faith in the shots with which he normally finishes points, and so the drop shot came into play more than it should have. And, adding to his woes, Djokovic was not serving with his customary deception and precision, and therefore not earning enough free points on his delivery.
Wawrinka, meanwhile, gathered himself almost ineffably from deuce in that exhilarating 5-4 game. An excellent first serve was more than Djokovic could handle, giving Wawrinka his second match point. Djokovic made a first rate return, but Wawrinka drove his glorious one-handed backhand down the line to conclude the match with his 60th winner, twice as many as Djokovic. That took gumption. Wawrinka concluded the encounter in style.
And so, on his eleventh attempt, after failing to advance beyond the quarterfinals in his previous ten appearances, Wawrinka captured the French Open title, toppling the top two seeds in the process, losing his serve only three times in his last three matches against Federer, Tsonga and Djokovic. Both Andre Agassi in 1999 and Federer ten years later also ruled at Roland Garros for the first time on their eleventh attempts. Wawrinka became the oldest men’s champion at the French Open since the left-handed Ecuadorian Andres Gomez took the 1990 title over Agassi.
Best of all, Wawrinka set the sports world aflame with his dazzling and uncompromising shotmaking. He had won two small tournaments earlier this season in Chennai and Rotterdam, but since the winter his record had been horrific. But his triumph was a tribute to his innate gifts, overwhelming power and an ability to raise his game enormously when it counted the most. All of those attributes allowed Wawrinka to come through at a major for the second time. Stan Wawrinka validated his 2014 Australian Open victory. He played perhaps the best tennis match of his life to beat Djokovic in the final. The man has never been better.
SERENA WILLS HER WAY TO 20th MAJOR
Across her long and illustrious career, through a multitude of majors, against a wide range of adversaries, Serena Williams has had her share of long and difficult struggles at the Grand Slam events. But never has she needed to fight harder over a fortnight than she did this year at Roland Garros. For the first time in a career spanning 59 majors, Williams was taken to three sets in five of her seven matches. No woman has ever had to play that many sets to secure a “Big Four” title, but then again there has probably never been a more resilient competitor in the history of the women’s game.
Williams got sick in the middle of this French Open and was always struggling to find the upper level of her game. Somehow she claimed a third singles championship at the French Open, and her second in a three year stretch. Yet she was constantly fighting from behind. After a routine first round win, she was down a set to the German Anna-Lena Friedsam before rallying to win 5-7, 6-3, 6-3. Her most harrowing escape was against former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the third round. Azarenka won the first set and went ahead 4-2 in the second, but Williams took four games in a row. Azarenka built a 2-0 final set lead as well, but once more Williams battled back, coming away with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 triumph.
One round later, Sloane Stephens was three points away from a straight set win over Williams before Serena came through 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. After a 6-1, 6-3 success against Sara Errani, Williams was down a set and a break to the industrious and enterprising Timea Bacsinszky, but then captured no less than ten games in a row for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 triumph. So when Williams went up 6-3, 4-1, 40-15 against Lucia Safarova in the final, it seemed at last that she was going to win comfortably. But Williams lost her nerve at that juncture and dropped that game on a pair of double faults. Safarova not only took that set in a tie-break but she built a 2-0 final set lead.
It seemed entirely possible that Williams could lose that match, but she raised the stakes one last time and secured six games in a row to prevail 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2. She has now won 20 of 24 major finals, losing only to her sister Venus (twice), Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur. She has been one of the great big match players ever to step on a court. I believe she will become only the fourth woman ever to win the Grand Slam this year, joining Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970), and Steffi Graf (1988) in that elite land. I think she will now almost surely surpass Graf’s total of 22 majors, and might even tie Margaret Court for the record at 24. Williams is as ferocious a competitor as the game has yet seen. She may yet go down as the greatest female tennis player of all time if she can add a few more links to her chain of success at the major events.
But her conduct during that final against Safarova was not commendable. Too often she was heard using the “ f” word and she was given a warning for her obscenities. That kind of behavior should not be tolerated. The officials need to clamp down and warn players like Serena earlier in matches for that type of language. Serena Williams is universally admired for her soaring greatness and her insatiable drive to become the best of all time. That is admirable stuff. The hope here is that she will clean up her language on the court and set a better example for young players who emulate her.
LUCIE SAFAROVA REACHES FIRST MAJOR FINAL
She knocked out defending champion Maria Sharapova in the round of 16, halted the capable Spaniard Garbine Muguruza in the quarters, and then took on 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic in the penultimate round. It seemed then that Lucie Safarova’s Roland Garros was coming to an end, and that would have been no disgrace. After all, Safarova reached her first semifinal at a major in 2014 at Wimbledon. At 28, she has grown into her talent later than many players, who often peak in their early twenties. But Safarova rescued herself ably from 2-5 down in the first set against Ivanovic and won that set. In the second set, she served at 5-4 and had a match point, but served her third double fault of that game. Yet Safarova put that deep disappointment behind her and defeated Ivanovic 7-5, 7-5.
Her performance in the final against Williams was extraordinary. Safarova’s used her lefty sliced serve judiciously in the ad court, began outhitting Williams from the backcourt and mixing up her shots cagily, shook off her early match inhibitions, and took a service break lead in the final set. Williams halted her in the end, but Safarova has claimed a place for herself among the top ten in the world, a place where she belongs, a place where she should remain. Her southpaw inside-out forehand is her signature stroke. Her court craft is steadily growing. Safarova took the doubles title the next day with the zany American Bethanie Mattek Sands, but on her own she figures to make an even larger impact in the women’s game. She will make it to a few more major finals.
The charismatic Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has long been a serious threat at the majors. In 2008, he got to the final of the Australian Open. Since then, he has twice been to the penultimate round at Wimbledon, and two years ago he was a semifinalist at Roland Garros. He has had aggravating injury problems since then, but in this Paris edition the flamboyant 30-year-old reemerged, cutting down both No.4 seed Tomas Berdych and No. 5 Kei Nishikori. Against Berdych, Tsonga was ultra-aggressive and surprisingly reliable from the baseline in a four set win. The Nishikori match was more complicated. Tsonga was destroying the Japanese icon in the wind for two sets but then the conditions got calmer and Nishikori found his range off the ground to push the match into a fifth set.
In that final set, Tsonga served superbly to upset Nishikori 6-1, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3. He won 20 of 23 points on serve in that fifth set for a very big win against a player some of us thought would make it to the final. He proceeded to play a respectable match against Wawrinka; in fact, had he taken the critical third set when the match was locked at one set all, Tsonga might well have won. But he took an important step back toward the top of his game, and I have a feeling he will be dangerous at Wimbledon and all summer long on the hard courts.
Tsonga’s backhand is a major liability in his game. Wawrinka won far too many points with kick second serves to that side, and Tsonga gave away countless points with errant returns. He misses tons of backhands in long rallies as well. But his serve and forehand are great strengths and Tsonga seems to be rebuilding his psyche. That is not only good news for him, but for the game as well.
DJOKOVIC LOSES FINAL BUT WINS HEARTS AND MINDS
The world No. 1 had done everything he possibly could to ensure that would be at the peak of his powers for Roland Garros this year. Think of what he had done, winning five of seven tournaments on his way to Paris, sweeping 28 matches in a row leading up to his final round clash with Wawrinka, dominating the game. All five tournaments he had secured were prestigious: one major (the Australian Open), and four Masters 1000 crowns (Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome). He had never been as meticulously prepared for the French Open as he was this year.
And then Djokovic swept into the Roland Garros semifinals without the loss of a set, defeating nine times and defending champion Rafael Nadal 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 in the quarterfinals, and taking a two sets to love lead against Andy Murray in the semifinals. Had he closed out that match in straight sets, Djokovic would have had a much needed day off on Saturday in advance of the final. But he was not afforded that luxury.
An obstinate Murray—completely outplayed for the first two-and-a-half sets—salvaged the third set. Djokovic required treatment on his leg during an eight minute delay at the end of that set. The match resumed and the players were tied at 3-3 in the fourth set when play was suspended. Djokovic had already put in three hours of hard work on Friday; the next day he needed more than an hour to complete a 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 5-7, 6-1 victory. But not having a day off was one serious impediment for Djokovic, and another was the lingering issue he had with his leg/groin.
While Wawrinka was almost impossibly good in the final and his execution off the ground was the stuff of dreams, Djokovic was not even close to his zenith. He came out of a deep funk to nearly push the match into a fifth set, but Wawrinka matched and even surpassed the Serbian’s intensity late in the fourth to gain a courageous win over the world’s greatest player.
Djokovic was surely despondent about not achieving the career Grand Slam. It was his third loss in a French Open title round contest. His record in major finals dropped to 8-8. It was a match he figured to win and a title he seemed almost certain to take. The setback must have been devastating for the 28-year-old. Yet he handled it all admirably. He greeted Wawrinka at the net, looked him in the eye, congratulated his opponent with clear-eyed sincerity, and patted the back of Wawrinka’s head to demonstrate how much he admired what the Swiss had done.
Before the presentation ceremony, Djokovic walked over to Wawrinka again to acknowledge his adversary for a job exceedingly well done. When he walked up the ramp and spoke to the Roland Garros crowd, Djokovic was given an even longer and more heartfelt ovation than he received a year ago after losing the final to Nadal on the same court. He smiled as the crowd showered him with lingering applause, although he surely wanted to cry. His supreme dignity in the public arena after suffering a shattering defeat was astonishing.
Djokovic then gave a press conference that revealed even more about who he is and what he has become. He offered no excuses, and refused to talk about the debilitating Murray match or his injury. He said that talking about such things “would not be fair to Stan. He was the better player today.” Djokovic repeated that sentiment several times, lauded Wawrinka for his sterling performance, and conducted himself the way every great player in that situation should: with utter class, restraint and character.
I have been covering tennis for more than forty years, and have been around the sport for half a century watching the world’s best players in their workplace. I have seen some exemplary sportsmanship from the likes of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander, Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal. Among the women, no one was more gracious in defeat than Chrissie Evert. All of these champions understood that it is no difficult task to win honorably.
Yet they knew that the larger and much tougher challenge is to move beyond themselves after losses and give the victors their due. Djokovic did that better than anyone I have ever witnessed in tennis the other day in Paris. He did it so naturally and genuinely that his authenticity simply could not be questioned. We are only in the middle of the 2015 season, but I am ready to proclaim right here and now that Novak Djokovic must be “Sportsman of the Year” after the way he acquitted himself at Roland Garros.