These questions are not easy to answer. In fairness to Wawrinkawho gave a very uninspired performance at a place where he has the capacity to perform commandinglyhe had by far the toughest draw of all the top seeds. Rafael Nadal, for instance, opened against American wildcard Robby Ginepri, a 2005 U.S. Open semifinalist who has been gone from the upper echelons of the sport for a long while. Predictably, a finely tuned Nadalin search of a ninth singles crown in Paristook apart a thoroughly outclassed Ginepri 6-0, 6-3, 6-0. No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic took on Joao Sousa of Portugal, a 25-year-old who broke into the top 50 a year ago. But no one believed he could seriously threaten the six-time Grand Slam tournament victor from Serbia, and that was clearly the case. Djokovic smothered Sousa 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
To be sure, Japans Kei Nishikori— the No. 9 seedwas also ushered out of the first round in Paris by the sporadically dangerous left-hander Martin Klizan, but Nishikori was clearly hindered by a lingering injury and only went through the motions after losing a tie-break in the opening set, dropping the last two sets in a compromised condition. But insiders knew that Wawrinka had the toughest draw among those who might be viable contenders for the crown. Garcia-Lopez nearly upset Djokovic last month in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo after striking down Tomas Berdych at that Masters 1000 event. He had a hard fought victory over Nadal at Bangkok in the autumn of 2010, which was one of his fellow Spaniards best seasons.
Garcia Lopez is a wily veteran. He is the kind of player who intuitively knows the percentages. He will not beat himself. He is solid, resourceful, and not easily intimidated by those with wider shotmaking arsenals and larger reputations. Although he has never been beyond the third round at the majors, he is a high caliber player and is not the person you want to meet in the first round at a Grand Slam event before you have found your bearings. Surely, Stan Wawrinka knew precisely what he was up against, realized that he could not afford to take this assignment lightly, and recognized that he needed to be sharp and quick-witted from the outset if he wanted to avoid a stressful situation he might not be able to reverse.
Wawrinka opened the match impressively, taking a 3-1 lead in the first set. But gradually Garcia-Lopez found his range from the backcourt. The Spaniard captured five of the next six games to salvage a set that could have belonged to the Swiss. Serving for that first set at 5-4, Garcia-Lopez found himself down 0-30, but he worked his way out of that corner with cool resolve. He struck a forehand crosscourt winner at a sharp angle off a well-produced crosscourt forehand from Wawrinka, and Garcia-Lopez was back to 15-30. On the following point, Wawrinka tried for a forehand inside-in winner off a high looping shot from Garcia Lopez, and the Swiss missed that shot badly. At 30-30, the Wawrinka forehand broke down again. It was set point for the Spaniard, who then took a short return from Wawrinka and directed his approach shot forcefully to the Wawrinka forehand. Wawrinka could not make that arduous passing shot. For Garcia-Lopez, it was a clutch hold which sealed the set, 6-4 in his favor. He had the upper hand.
But Wawrinka fought back to take a hotly contested second set, breaking a 5-5 deadlock, reaching one set all with a timely burst of aggression. He took the set 7-5 to reach one set all. Wawrinka was back in the match. His prospects looked markedly improved. But the Spaniard knew he was still the better man from the baseline. The make or break shot for Wawrinka has always been his forehand. That shot won him the Australian Open in January more than anything else. He has worked assiduously on adding stability to that side, cutting down substantially on his errors, waiting for the right openings to go for winners. When Wawrinka came through to win his first Masters 1000 crown in Monte Carlo last month with a final round triumph over Roger Federer, once again his forehand was first rate and a primary reason why he got over the finish line. His glorious one-handed backhand has always been the signature shot for Wawrinka, but the forehand has too often been a liability until recently.
And yet, old flaws can always reemerge. Technically, day in and day out, his forehand is a better shot than it has ever been before, but it remains vulnerable on given days. This was one of those days. Garcia-Lopez peppered the forehand of Wawrinka whenever possible and Wawrinka had a terrible time in the heavy conditions dealing with high balls to that side. After taking the second set, Wawrinka remained highly vulnerable in the baseline rallies. He had very little confidence. He was off key. His timing was poor.
Garcia-Lopez bolted to 3-1 in the third set, reestablishing his momentum swiftly and self-assuredly. Wawrinka held on for 2-3, and was seemingly not in the worst of shape, down only one break in the pivotal third set. And yet, he never won another game in the entire match. The disciplined and unerring Garcia-Lopez secured no less than nine games in a row to run away with the victory shortly before darkness. The Spaniard was up 40-30 at 3-2 when Wawrinka made a mental error on an important point. Garcia-Lopez rolled a high trajectory ball crosscourt, deep into Wawrinkas backhand corner. Wawrinka was ill-prepared, clearly believing Garcia-Lopezs shot was going long. But it landed well inside the baseline, and Wawrinka was caught off guard. The discombobulated Swiss sent a backhand half-volley into the net. It was 4-2 for the Spaniard.
Matters only became worse for Wawrinka. In the seventh game, he fell behind 0-40 before saving a break point, but Wawrinka drove a backhand long down the line for a glaring unforced error at 15-40. On to 5-2 went the Spaniard. He trailed 15-40 in the following game, but Garcia-Lopez clipped the baseline with a backhand volley winner down the line. Wawrinka gave away the next three points with unprovoked mistakes. He had squandered a good opportunity to stay in the set.
Ahead two sets to one, Garcia-Lopez never looked back as a disgruntled Wawrinka played like a man who seemed to believe he was destined not to succeed. He was broken at 15 in the first game of the fourth set, making two more damaging forehand unforced errors. Garcia-Lopez held at 15 for 2-0. In the third game, Wawrinka erased a break point against him at 30-40. At deuce, the two players had a high quality 18 stroke exchange, but Wawrinka was coaxed into another error off the forehand, this one at full stretch. Down break point for the second time in that critical third game, Wawrinka wounded himself once more, missing a forehand inside out long off a block return from the strategically sound Garcia-Lopez.
The match was all but over. Garcia-Lopez had such a large cushion that he had no reason to doubt himself. At this stage of the match, he had made only 26 unforced errors, 34 fewer than his opponent. Garcia-Lopez maintained his supremacy, holding at love to reach 4-0 before breaking Wawrinka for the eighth time in the contest to reach 5-0. Garcia-Lopez promptly held at 30 for the match, eclipsing Wawrinka 6-4, 5-7, 6-2, 6-0, taking 12 of the last 14 games, sweeping the last nine consecutively. He had thoroughly outplayed Wawrinka across the board. It was a first rate performance from a man who is ranked No. 41 in the world.
For Wawrinka, though, it was disconcerting. For all the aforementioned reasons, it was no disgrace to lose to Garcia-Lopez. But the decisiveness of the defeat was hard to justify. He did not give up, but his heart seemed less than fully engaged in the battle. He needed to find some inner spark, to fashion a revised gameplan, to make Garcia-Lopez apprehensive about closing out the match. But Wawrinka faded mentally rather than physically down the stretch, and gave his opponent the luxury of a comfortable, uncomplicated finish.
It was not the way Wawrinka wanted to leave the draw in Roland Garros after taking his first major at the Australian Open. Many great players have had their difficulties when playing their next major event after a breakthrough triumph. For example, Roger Federer claimed his first Grand Slam tournament title at Wimbledon in 2003, and then fell in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open against old nemesis David Nalbandian. Pete Sampras secured his first major at the 1990 U.S. Open, but was beaten in the second round of his next major at the 1991 French Open. Nadal broke into the Grand Slam tournament winners circle at the French Open in 2005, and then was ushered out of his next major at Wimbledon in the second round. Bjorn Borg won his first Grand Slam title in 1974 at Roland Garros, but bowed out at Wimbledon in the third round at his next major event.
Conversely, Jimmy Connors took his first major at the 1974 Australian Open and then was victorious in his next two Big Four appearances at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that same year.
Wawrinka had reasonably high hopes for this French Open. He was a quarterfinalist a year ago, losing to the eventual champion Nadal. He knows what he is doing on clay, as he demonstrated indisputably with his Monte Carlo tournament triumph. To be sure, he had a tough draw, and that was simply bad luck. But the feeling remains that he could have done himself more justice in defeat. In my view, Wawrinka must remember that while his colleagues on the ATP World Tour may be impressed with his more recently attained exalted status, they are not afraid of him. He must earnestly try to make amends in London and New York for his less than stellar display in Paris by going deep into those draws. Stan Wawrinka could find no better way to silence the skeptics that to decidedly step up at the next two majors.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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