Many authorities felt that Wawrinka might replicate his Roland Garros heroics here on the lawns of Wimbledon. He had nothing to lose. The other leading players were all well aware of his growing capacity to take matches into his own hands and leave opponents helpless with his propensity to make daring shots no matter what the score or situation. Wawrinka came into the quarterfinals of the world’s premier tournament with a mindset that he could compete with anyone in the world.
And yet, Wawrinka could not find the ultimate answers when he confronted the gifted Frenchman Richard Gasquet today. Gasquet, too, is a scintillating shotmaker. This was an absorbing battle of outstanding one-handed backhands. The Frenchman and the Swiss had clashed on only two occasions, with Gasquet taking their first appointment on an indoor carpet at Paris back in 2006, and Wawrinka prevailing in their second and most recent meeting at the French Open two years ago in the round of 16. Wawrinka rallied gamely from two sets down on that occasion to topple Gasquet 8-6 in the fifth. In their extraordinary collision today, Gasquet reversed that result with a 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 11-9 triumph over Wawrinka.
This was surely the match of the tournament for the men thus far. I expected Wawrinka to prevail in four sets because he has the heavier ground game, the bigger serve and the larger capacity to end points with unstoppable shots. I felt that his weight of shot and explosiveness would rule the day, but I underestimated the earnest Gasquet, who made it to the semifinals here in 2007 with a spectacular climb from two sets down as he ousted Andy Roddick in five tumultuous sets. Gasquet was beaten that year in the penultimate round by Roger Federer, who then secured his fifth singles championship in a row on the Centre Court with a five set win over Rafael Nadal. Gasquet reached another semifinal at a major two years ago in New York at the U.S. Open, losing there to the eventual champion Nadal. But, by and large, he has seldom done full justice to his talent, and the 29-year-old Frenchman has long been regarded by the cognoscenti as something of a lightweight in a heavyweight division.
Against Wawrinka in this alluring quarterfinal, Gasquet did not look like a lightweight. He played the match largely on his own terms, sparring intelligently with Wawrinka from the backcourt, giving the big hitter as little pace as possible, waiting for ideal openings before unleashing his own brand of heavy artillery. He played a terrific tactical match, keeping Wawrinka frequently at bay, changing pace immaculately, refusing to allow Wawrinka a good rhythm. Too often, the Swiss had to generate his own pace, and that led to clusters of unforced errors at inopportune times. Wawrinka made 40 of those unprovoked mistakes, 21 more than Gasquet.
Gasquet broke his adversary for a 4-3 first set lead as Wawrinka erred off his stronger backhand flank. Serving for that set at 5-4, Gasquet was taken to deuce but he produced a couple of 123 MPH first serves and took control of the next two points to close out the opening set, 6-4. Until Gasquet served at 4-5 in the second set, he seemed to be the better player. Although Wawrinka led 3-0, Gasquet rallied to 3-3. At 4-4, the Frenchman had a break point, but Wawrinka erased it and held on. Gasquet served to stay in the set at 4-5, but the pressure seemed to engulf him at that juncture.
He served a double fault to trail 30-40. But, after two deuces, Gasquet found himself set point down for the second time. He double faulted again. He had handed the set to Wawrinka, who now found his bearings from the baseline and opened up forcefully off both wings. He broke Gasquet to establish a 3-1 third set lead, and did not lose his serve in that set. At 5-3, Wawrinka started with an ace down the T at 133 MPH, added two winners off the ground, and held at love to take a two sets to one lead. Wawrinka seemed to have turned the corner and it looked as if he was heading home, ready to reach the first Wimbledon semifinal of his career.
The fourth set went to 4-4. Gasquet knew he had to make his move swiftly, or he would be out of the tournament. He held at love in the ninth game, and then advanced to 15-40 in the following game. Wawrinka found himself down double break point, and he could not escape. The 30-year-old Swiss double faulted. Set to Gasquet, 6-4.
And so it all came down to a fifth set that had the fans sorely conflicted from beginning to end. Both men saved their best and brightest tennis for the end of a gripping contest. Gasquet was down a break point in the first game, but he held on after three deuces. On the penultimate point of that game, Gasquet served an ace and then he held on tenaciously to maintain his momentum. At 1-2, Wawrinka needed four game points to hold on, but he did just that with an ace. Both players held comfortably until Wawrinka served at 3-4.
Now the fun began. Wawrinka was understandably apprehensive at this crucial stage. He made a backhand unforced error, and netted a forehand approach. It was 0-30 for Gasquet. The Frenchman then drew Wawrinka into the net with a short chipped return that set up a backhand passing shot down the line. Wawrinka netted a difficult forehand volley. Make it 0-40. Wawrinka fought off two break points for 30-40, but at the third time of asking he did not have an answer. The Swiss tried a forehand drop volley, but it sat up slightly. Gasquet scampered in and steered a forehand passing shot into an open space down the line.
The sprightly Gasquet had the break for 5-3, and was serving for the match. He advanced to 30-15, two points away from one of the most gratifying victories of his career. But the Frenchman lacked poise at that critical moment. He drove a backhand down the line wide, taking an unnecessary risk that was not well calculated. At 30-30, Wawrinka made one fine passing shot that set up another, and Gasquet punched a forehand volley wide. Down break point at 30-40, Gasquet went for another backhand down the line but sent that shot into the net. Wawrinka had broken back for 4-5. He held at 30 for 5-5.
And then Gasquet found himself perilously close to a bruising defeat. He was down 0-30 in the eleventh game but he proceeded to play two excellent serve-and-volley points for 30-30. Wawrinka subsequently made a pair of errors off the ground. Gasquet moved admirably to 6-5. Now both players acquitted themselves honorably through a series of high quality games. Wawrinka held at love for 6-6 and Gasquet responded in kind, not losing a point on his delivery in holding for 7-6. Wawrinka bravely held for 7-7 at 15 before Gasquet moved ahead 8-7. Wawrinka played a superb game on his serve to reach 8-8, yet Gasquet remained resolute, holding at 15 for 9-8.
Wawrinka served to stay in the match for the fifth time, holding at love for 9-9. Both men were backing up their serves magnificently, and performing with both panache and an unblinking eye on the percentages. At 9-9, Gasquet was down break point, but a fine first serve coaxed Wawrinka into a backhand return mistake. Gasquet held on for 10-9. With Wawrinka serving in the twentieth game, the Swiss made three consecutive unforced errors to trail 0-40. Down triple match point, however, he was utterly composed. Gasquet caught the net tape with a running forehand and Wawrinka followed with a winning volley for 30-40. But, on the third match point, Wawrinka drove a backhand crosscourt long.
The Swiss had battled ferociously through three hours and 28 minutes, across a multitude of phases in the late afternoon, and on into the evening. He was beaten in the end because Gasquet prevented the Swiss from turning the encounter into a sheer shotmaking contest. The Frenchman was patient, purposeful, strategically sound and more agile mentally. He refused to allow Wawrinka the freedom to explore the zenith of his game. Wawrinka did produce 73 winners while Gasquet had 46, but that statistic is somewhat misleading. In the final analysis, Wawrinka was too often uncomfortable in the rallies and he failed to impose himself on a regular basis.
The fact remains that Wawrinka competed like the remarkable champion he has become. He gave himself every chance to win, but on the day he did not have the goods to get it done. From the baseline, he hit only 24 winners, and that was insufficient.
Despite this defeat, I fully expect Wawrinka to be back in the thick of things at the U.S. Open. It was always going to be a tall task for the Swiss to win Wimbledon so soon after his French Open victory. That is one of the most demanding feats in tennis, and in the Open Era the only men to realize it have been Rod Laver (1969), Bjorn Borg (1978-80), Rafael Nadal (2008 and 2010), and Federer (2009). Wawrinka need not despair that he did not join that elite company.
Meanwhile, the semifinals here at the shrine of the sport pit Gasquet against Djokovic and Andy Murray against Federer. The view here is that Djokovic is an overwhelming favorite to topple Gasquet. The Serbian accounted for Marin Cilic today 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 without even facing a break point. That was a nice follow up to his harrowing five set win over Kevin Anderson. Djokovic is 11-1 against Gasquet, with the Frenchman overcoming the Serbian for the only time at the Tennis Masters Cup in 2007. In their most recent encounter, Djokovic dismissed Gasquet 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 at Roland Garros. It could be a very similar story on Friday when they collide in the semifinals.
On the other half of the draw, Federer takes a 12-11 career lead into his meeting with Murray. He has won their last three meetings, all in 2014. To be sure, Murray is a different player now, but Federer was more convincing in his straight set quarterfinal win over Gilles Simon than Murray was in eclipsing Vasek Pospisil. More worrisome to Murray must be his ailing shoulder. Although he did not lose his serve against Pospisil, Murray did not get the consistent velocity on his delivery that he will need against Federer. That could prove to be his undoing against the seven time champion on Friday. Conversely, if Murray is not concerned about his shoulder and is serving at full force, he has a better chance but the challenge will still be immense.
It is a difficult match to forecast. Federer has served prodigiously all tournament long, and has been broken only once. He looks supremely confident. Murray, too, has played some stupendous tennis over the course of the fortnight, but he will need to take it up a notch if he wants to beat Federer. I am picking Federer in four sets, but this will be a stirring battle and both men want this win badly.
As for Stan Wawrinka, he loses out on the opportunity to confront Djokovic again. Djokovic would have been apprehensive about facing his friendly adversary. We will have to wait for them to meet some time over the summer. But I believe Wawrinka is certain to find himself in due course back in the semifinals and finals of majors. The loss to Gasquet does not alter my view that Wawrinka has a big couple of years ahead of him.