And yet, very few seasoned observers were prepared for the fortnight he would celebrate here in Paris at the world’s premier clay court event. In securing his second career major, he eclipsed countryman and 2009 champion Roger Federer in straight sets without losing his serve, and then upended none other than Novak Djokovic in a four set final, coming from behind with a stupendous and often breathtaking display of shotmaking to defeat the Serbian 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. Djokovic hardly ever loses after winning the opening set, and has been an unassailable front runner. But Wawrinka’s outright spunk, spontaneity and audacity when the chips were down were astounding. To be sure, this was not a top of the line Djokovic, who seemed largely depleted and distraught from the end of the second set until the start of the fourth.
But Wawrinka must be loudly applauded for giving perhaps the finest performance of his career to overcome a man who had beaten him in 17 of 20 previous career collisions. His pursuit of victory was unwavering. His mindset was perhaps stronger than ever before. His decision making on the court was nearly flawless. And even when a much more impassioned Djokovic reemerged in the fourth set and raised the stakes, Stan Wawrinka was not found wanting. His sustained brilliance from the backcourt was a joy to behold. His imagination was full of clarity. His willingness to keep going incessantly for his shots and refusing to back off was commendable.
Wawrinka simply outplayed Djokovic across the board, and he refused to allow the favorite to take control of the rallies from the baseline. Wawrinka was blasting away with controlled aggression off both sides, dictating to a large degree, defending superbly whenever necessary, and serving up a storm all match long against the world’s best returner. His forehand has improved markedly over the last couple of years, and in the final against Djokovic it was not only explosive but surprisingly consistent. I have never seen it hold up so well in a long and consequential match. Add that to a typically great day off his backhand, and one realizes why Wawrinka was one tough fellow to stop. In the four exacting sets, Wawrinka saved eight of ten break points against him, losing his serve only twice. That was a tall order, and it was demoralizing for a player who expects to control the backcourt agenda. Moreover, Wawrinka returned surprisingly well in this match, always making a fatigued Djokovic work hard to hold, giving away remarkably few points with careless shots.
The final statistics tell a large portion of the story. Wawrinka had 60 winners while Djokovic made only 30, and the Swiss committed 45 unforced errors, only four more than the Serbian. Wawrinka won 76% of his first serve points while Djokovic was decidedly lower at 62%. Djokovic had a slight edge on second serve points won at 53% with Wawrinka coming in at 50%, but that difference was marginal and, ultimately, insignificant. In the end, Wawrinka was simply the superior tennis player on the day.
It is time to review the match. Djokovic clearly had the upper hand in the opening set. He garnered a break point in the opening game but missed a forehand return long, and Wawrinka held on. With the set locked at 2-2, Djokovic had another break point opportunity but sent a forehand down the line wide as his footwork betrayed him. So Wawrinka reached 3-2 on serve, but he was under duress. On his way to 3-3, Djokovic won 12 of 17 points on serve. Although he trailed 0-30 at 2-2, he proceeded to sweep four points in a row, closing out that game with an ace.
In the seventh game, Djokovic made his move, breaking at love with an intelligent groundstroke mixture. At 0-40, Wawrinka double faulted, and that was essentially the set. Djokovic held easily for 5-3. Two games later, serving for the set, Djokovic surged to 40-15, but Wawrinka made things very interesting. He connected with a forehand down the line passing shot winner when Djokovic came in behind a mediocre swing volley approach. At 40-30, Wawrinka chased down a Djokovic drop shot, swiftly retreated to the baseline to run down his opponent’s next shot, and sent a terrific passing shot at the feet of the Serbian, who could not respond.
Djokovic was momentarily shaken. He missed a routine backhand to enable Wawrinka to reach break point, but the Serbian celebrated one of his proudest moments to save it, playing a serve-and-volley point. Wawrinka was perhaps daunted by his incoming opponent, and he could not handle the return. Djokovic collected the next two points to seal the set, bellowing with immense relief and exhilaration when he did it. In the opening game of the second set, he had a break point, but Wawrinka erased it with an ace out wide, and held on from there.
Now the complexion of the match was altered tremendously. Already down a set, Wawrinka was relieved not to be down a break in the second. He has his bearings and Djokovic was unable to open up his wings and go more freely for his shots. Although Djokovic held at love for 1-1 in the second set, he knew what he was up against and realized that a larger struggle was ahead. Wawrinka held at love for 2-1, opening that game with an ace. Djokovic was twice down break point in the fourth game, but Wawrinka made a pair of backhand unforced errors. Djokovic tenuously held on for 2-2. Wawrinka held easily again for 3-2 at the cost of only one point, and once more Djokovic was under siege as the Swiss hit him with some very heavy artillery.
Djokovic saved another break point on his way to 3-3, finding an opening for a forehand inside-in winner. He then recovered from 40-0 down back to deuce in the seventh game, only to make an abysmal forehand unforced error. Wawrinka held on for 4-3 and had another break point in the next game, but somehow Djokovic wiggled out of that corner to reach 4-4. But, after Wawrinka easily advanced to 5-4, he came through with a critical service break just when he most needed it. Djokovic was serving at 4-5, 30-0, but failed to do enough with his forehand approach, and Wawrinka laced a backhand passing shot down the line for a winner. Wawrinka followed with a mightily struck forehand down the line winner behind Djokovic, and suddenly it was 30-30.
Djokovic then put himself down set point with an abysmally played two-hander crosscourt, sending that shot well wide. On the following point, Djokovic was scrambling all the way through and never got any traction. Wawrinka broke when Djokovic made another backhand mistake. Set to Wawrinka, 6-4. A deeply dismayed Djokovic smacked his racket on the court in utter disgust, knowing that it was as if a brand new, best of three set match was about to begin. Having worked so hard to stay in that set, Djokovic was worried. Under ordinary circumstances, he would be ready to start all over at one set all, but not this time around. He had needed five sets and two days to subdue Andy Murray in the semifinals, and this was his third consecutive day of intense competition. He was awfully weary, both physically and mentally.
Despite a 15-30 deficit in the first game of the third set, Wawrinka held on with some potent and timely serving for 1-0. Djokovic was down 15-40 in the second game and had to save three break points, which he did by the skin of his teeth. Both players held for 2-2, but Wawrinka clearly and unmistakably was the far more confident competitor. He held at love for 3-2 with an ace, forehand winner and a forehand drop volley winner, followed by a wild, errant Djokovic forehand. Wawrinka displayed the same mastery of his craft to break Djokovic at love for 4-2. The No. 8 seed commenced that game in dazzling fashion with consecutive forehand down the line winners, and then came through with a backhand winner up the line on the run. Down 0-40, Djokovic elected to employ the drop shot, a tactic that was becoming increasingly futile for him. Wawrinka took the point with another forehand winner.
He had broken at love with four straight winners, leaving Djokovic despondent and dumbfounded. That crucial break decided the set. Wawrinka struggled to hold for 5-2 but got through that game safely. Serving for the set at 5-3, he started with an ace and held at love. He was utterly inspired, inordinately purposeful, and unrelenting. Djokovic was barely recognizable. It was not that he was playing badly, but he lacked his customary intensity, and his thinking was terribly clouded. He was bailing out of too many points with the drop shot, and failing to respond to Wawrinka’s dynamic big hitting with his own brand of aggression.
And yet, Wawrinka had a letdown at the outset of the fourth set. Boosted by a bunch of unprovoked mistakes from the Swiss, Djokovic held at 15 for 1-0. At 30-30 in the next game, Djokovic kept a backhand passing shot low, and forced an error on the volley from Wawrinka. Wawrinka then drove a backhand down the line into the net, and Djokovic had the early break for 2-0. He held on for 3-0, but was unconvincing in the process. Wawrinka, meanwhile, was revitalized, taking 12 of the next 15 points to reach 3-3. Djokovic seemed almost resigned to defeat, and in the seventh game he trailed 15-40.
At that moment, however, he reached back with all of his resources, and made up his mind that he would not lose without a much more spirited fight. Wawrinka had just made one of his countless forehand winners, and Djokovic seemed to give his opponent a long stare after that point. But at last he broke out of his listlessness and reinvented himself, recovering his vitality. At 15-40, he came forward to play an angled forehand volley, opening up the court for a forehand volley winner down the line. The next point was his signature moment of the match. Wawrinka struck a backhand passing shot crosscourt as majestically as it can be done, but Djokovic lunged to his left for a superb and highly improbable backhand volley winner down the line. An unstoppable first serve took Djokovic to game point, and he then drove a two-hander down the line for a winner. That was a shot he had not exploited nearly enough, but it was an ideal way to battle back and get the hold for 4-3.
That brave stand from the Serbian seemed to briefly unsettle Wawrinka, who soon found himself serving at 0-40 after thrice making errors off the ground. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Djokovic was within striking distance of forcing a fifth set. Wawrinka was at triple break point down, perilously close to falling behind 5-3 and allowing Djokovic to serve for the fourth set and perhaps push the contest into a fifth. The Serbian had collected seven critical points in a row to give himself this golden opportunity, but Wawrinka not only held his composure but lifted his own game to astonishing heights when it mattered the most.
At 0-40, Wawrinka produced a terrific forehand approach to set up a forehand volley winner. His first serve into Djokovic’s body on the forehand side yielded a short return, and Wawrinka stepped in unhesitatingly to drive his incomparable one-handed backhand down the line for a winner. At 30-40, his first serve down the T was unreturnable. From deuce, Wawrinka came to the net and coaxed consecutive forehand lob errors from an overwhelmed Djokovic. Wawrinka had captured five clutch points in a row to hold on for 4-4.
Now both players were simultaneously displaying their best stuff, and the tennis was absolutely enthralling. At 4-4, 30-40, Djokovic played a surprise serve-and-volley point, putting away a backhand first volley down the line, catching Wawrinka off guard. But when the Serbian tried that tactic again at deuce on a second serve, it backfired. Wawrinka got the return at the feet of Djokovic, who could not handle it. Down break point again, Djokovic approached off the backhand to the Wawrinka backhand, but the top seed never had a chance. The passing shot from the Swiss No. 2 was immaculate. He drove it down the line for a winner, gaining the break again, moving ahead 5-4, serving for the match and the title.
The drama was not over. At 15-30 in the tenth game, Wawrinka unleashed another forehand down the line winner and then came forward to provoke a passing shot error from Djokovic. It was match point for the Swiss, who served down the T and briefly believed he might have produced an ace. But the umpire checked the mark. The ball was long. Djokovic still had a chance. He worked his way forward and coaxed an error on a lob from Wawrinka, and then a very fortunate let-cord shot went his way, and Djokovic was able to pass Wawrinka cleanly down the line to reach break point.
But Djokovic could not convert. His inside-out forehand—which had been well below par all match long—failed him again, going wide. It was deuce. Wawrinka directed a wide serve to the Djokovic forehand, and the Swiss moved to match point for the second time. Djokovic made a first rate return, but Wawrinka fittingly wrapped up his triumph with a scintillating backhand down the line winner. In three hours and 12 minutes, Wawrinka had emerged victorious against a heavily favored foe.
Djokovic conducted himself impeccably when it was over, greeting his rival warmly at the net, patting the back of his head, saying some things that were unmistakably laudatory and gracious. During the presentation ceremony, the crowd showered him with sustained, lasting and heartfelt applause, which Djokovic acknowledged with a smile that masked the obvious depth of his pain. Djokovic had just been beaten for the third time in a French Open final, and so his quest for a first French Open title and a career Grand Slam was denied by a madly inspired adversary who played probably the match of his life.
In his press conference, Djokovic could not have been more exemplary or a finer sportsman. He refused to make any alibis about being drained by finally beating Nadal at Roland Garros and then going the distance with Murray across two days. “I don’t want to come up with an excuse, saying these two matches took a lot out of me and I lost today. I don’t think that’s fair to Stan. I don’t think that’s fair to sit here and whine about what has happened. Certainly those two matches were very big in terms of physical demand and mental and emotional as well. But still, I was today feeling pretty fresh as much as I could. I mean, I was ready to go out and fight, and I have done so. Maybe in some important moments I didn’t feel I had that explosivity in the legs. But look, at the end of the day he was just a better player.”
Djokovic repeatedly called Wawrinka the “better player”. He added, “He played some courageous tennis and deserved to win. He just played some really good tactical tennis and also was very aggressive in his shots in some break points, like 4-4 in the fourth with the winner passing shot down the line. All I can say is: well done. He deserves it.”
Wawrinka will move up to No. 4 in the world and he will inevitably be in the thick of the battle at the two remaining majors this year, although it is hard to imagine him replicating the form he displayed against Djokovic. As for the Serbian, it will take time to heal from the deep wounds of this defeat. He had won 41 of 43 matches this season, and five of seven tournaments, including the Australian Open and four Masters 1000 events. He had not lost on clay, capturing the titles in Monte Carlo and Rome. He had not lost a set on his way to the semifinals at Roland Garros, and then held back Murray to reach the final.
It had seemed entirely possible that Djokovic would not only complete a career sweep of the four majors here, but also win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to become only the third man to win a Grand Slam. Those dreams are over, at least for the time being. Djokovic is now 8-8 in major finals, numbers that can’t be to his liking. But he has played too much great tennis this year to allow this disconcerting loss to set him back for long. I still make him the favorite for Wimbledon. As for Wawrinka, he will keep confounding us, suffering inexplicable losses before achieving towering victories. No matter what transpires from here on in, Wawrinka knows this: to be a two-time Grand Slam tournament champion is one thing that can never be taken away from him.