The championship match of a major singles tournament always influences and changes the larger story of tennis, but much as some points in a tennis match are more important than others, some title tilts acquire more importance than others.
Let’s be clear: What you’re about to read is not a final verdict on history or a permanent view of what we saw on Sunday, with Stan Wawrinka upsetting Novak Djokovic for the Roland Garros crown. This is a series of in-the-moment (or more precisely, just-after-the-moment) observations meant to convey a sense of what has changed for now.
Novak Djokovic will get a chance to change the story of his 0-fer at the French Open in subsequent years. His window of opportunity at Roland Garros is slightly more narrow — it’s one less chance in play for him — but viewed in a larger context, he’s going to be a prime contender at this event for at least the next three years, if not five or six. Moreover, Andrew Burton’s ATP Lost Boys could be the gateway for Nole to win Roland Garros at 31 or 32, if Nadal’s body gives out on him.
So, #DjokovicTwitter, do realize that this is NOT a permanent, set-in-stone collection of observations, just an immediate set of reactions.
However, there’s certainly something of value to be found in these reactions, which are intended to be conversation starters more than debate-ending mic drops.
5 – WAWRINKA IS MORE THAN JUST A ONE-HIT WONDER… IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE
The obvious reality connected to (and flowing from) Wawrinka’s victory over Djokovic is that he’s no longer a one-win man at the majors. Sure. However, the importance of that fact goes a little deeper.
Wawrinka — no asterisks — beat Rafael Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open final, but while refraining from assigning an asterisk to that match, one can still note that Nadal was physically compromised in the last three sets. Wawrinka has now secured a place in tennis history in that he’ll never have anyone ask him, “So, Stan, how does it feel to have your only major title come against a guy who had a hard time moving?”
Wawrinka never has to face that question. That is as significant as removing the “one-major” tag. This is one important way in which the story of tennis has been re-written.
4 – THE NEED FOR A ROOF AT ALL MAJOR TOURNAMENTS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER BEFORE
The lack of a roof at the French and U.S. Opens has been a conspicuous flaw at those two majors, and now we’ve seen why.
No, Wawrinka fans and Swiss nationalists, Djokovic’s two-day semifinal against Andy Murray did not decide Sunday’s final or cause it to move in Wawrinka’s direction. However, it can be said that if Roland Garros had a roof, the Djokovic-Murray semifinal could have been completed Friday night, indoors and under the lights.
Djokovic did not have to work too long or too hard on Saturday in blitzing Murray in a 6-1 fifth set, so again, it’s not as though the world No. 1 was taxed to (or past) the breaking point. However, the four majors should do everything possible to ensure that their championship singles matches occur in balanced competitive contexts. (Moreover, this would prevent John McEnroe from droning on and on about the subject on NBC, arguably an equally powerful reason to address this issue.)
Wawrinka beating Djokovic puts more focus on this larger point, not less.
3 – FEDERER AND THE “OTHERS” IN MAJOR FINALS
One criticism of Roger Federer’s career resume — a legitimate one, but one very susceptible to excess and “hot-takery” — is that he played several less-than-great players in major finals. Marcos Baghdatis and Mark Philippoussis top the list. Then come several players you’d certainly call “great,” but not on the scale of Djokovic and Rafael Nadal: Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, and the old-man version of Andre Agassi, one year before retirement. It’s true that once Nadal entered his all-court prime in 2008 and Djokovic followed at the end of 2010, Federer’s major counts progressively dwindled. He also got older.
At any rate, it makes for a fascinating discussion of Federer’s body of work. There are compelling arguments to be made on both sides.
However, if Wawrinka’s win over Djokovic does anything to reshape this debate, it certainly helps Federer. There’s Stan, giving his buddy a lift once again after the 2014 Davis Cup. Good ol’ Stanley.
Consider the fact that Magnus Norman coached a Nadal-slaying French Open finalist six years ago. Robin Soderling hit big and could overpower the Nadals of the world when at his best — seems kinda familiar in light of the Wawrinka-Djokovic match, no?
Well, Federer foiled Soderling in the 2009 final, playing a letter-perfect second-set tiebreaker to steer out of difficulty and into the history books.
Wawrinka has beaten Nadal and now Djokovic in major finals. For an “other guy,” he’s pretty darn good, and the key insight about Wawrinka’s major-final fortitude is that when any player makes a major final, he’s obviously playing really good tennis.
Sure, in the “Fedalovic Era” (shorthand for Federer-Nadal-Djokovic, just to be clear), you have to be better than (no disrespect intended) Thomas Enqvist, Rainer Schuettler, Arnaud Clement, and other major finalists from the early 2000s, so it’s not as though all major finalists in tennis history merit the same level of treatment.
However, let’s consider Soderling as a high-quality opponent Federer foiled in 2009. He was a lot better than the early-2000s crowd. So was Fernando Gonzalez in the 2007 Australian Open final. Gonzo played an almost obscenely perfect semifinal against Tommy Haas before the final against Federer, and he earned two set points in set one against the Swiss. Federer had to dig deep to pull out that set; had he failed, he would have had a major scrap on his hands.
So, it’s a given that “others” are not as formidable as Nadal or Djokovic. However, they’re not exactly tomato cans, either. Federer’s ability to consistently beat “others” in major finals (Juan Martin del Potro being the exception that proves the rule) isn’t as much of a drawback as you might have previously thought. It might not be a drawback at all, just a virtue not as great as the virtues Nadal and Djokovic possess.
2 – WAWRINKA IN CONTEXT, AND THE VALUE OF THE MAJORS
One core split in the tennis community concerns the extent to which major titles are valued. Many in the family of tennis bloggers and commentators make entirely legitimate and salient points about year-round consistency and the difficulty of winning at Masters 1000 tournaments, given the ruthlessness of everyday competition with no days off.
This next reflection question is not meant to discredit the valid arguments of the Masters/full-calendar portions of #TennisTwitter. It’s only meant as a counterbalance and something to think about:
Would you want Stan Wawrinka’s career or David Ferrer’s career?
Just think about it. Ferrer’s been the far more consistent player — a model of steadiness and leaving very, very little on the table against anyone and everyone outside the Big Four. Wawrinka’s career and its trajectory serve as very different examples. I know which career I’d take, and I say that even though I admire the consistent player far more than the erratic one who only seems to get up for big moments (but is really good at maxing out when he gets a serious look at the trophy).
It gives one pause… but it deserves to be contemplated in light of Sunday’s events.
1 – DJOKOVIC LOSES MORE THAN AN IMMEDIATE SHOT AT THE CAREER SLAM
The obvious way in which the story of tennis has changed after Sunday’s men’s final is that Djokovic won’t be able to play the rest of his career in complete peace — at least not yet. This loss will hover over him.
What matters now: How long will it linger?
Wimbledon, in three weeks, becomes a less dramatic tournament when seen in a broader way: There won’t be a calendar Grand Slam in the cards. Djokovic has clearly lost momentum in the attempt to make a furious late-career push at Nadal’s and Federer’s major title records (but he still has a chance to get to that territory if he responds the right way in 2015 and 2016, a couple of years in which he has to make his move).
Yet, while calendar Slam talk is gone, the more pressing issue is this nagging habit of failing to summon the ol’ Nole magic in major finals outside Melbourne and SW19. Djokovic is 7-1 in major finals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, but an inverted 1-7 in Paris and in New York at the U.S. Open. That’s more than just Nadal being Nadal now, with Wawrinka spoiling Sunday’s party. It’s a genuinely stunning undercutting of Djokovic’s signature virtue as a player: working his way through rough patches to rebound in the end. He does this in the first six rounds of majors, but not nearly as consistently in the seventh and final round (unless he’s in Melbourne or, to a lesser extent, suburban London).
One of the great truths of any sport: Don’t let one loss beat you twice (or more).
In American football, losing a game on one weekend can’t spill into the next Saturday or Sunday. In a best-of-seven basketball or hockey series, an excruciating overtime loss has to be shrugged off two nights later in the next game. In tennis, a horrible service game or a bad conclusion to a lost set can’t lead to a loss in focus or belief in the next game or set.
Losing in one immediate instance is bad enough, but that can’t carry over to the next facet of competition.
This is Djokovic’s challenge now.
In the 2012 Roland Garros final against Nadal, Djokovic double-faulted on match point. That was Nole’s first appearance in the French Open final, his first chance to complete the career Slam. It bears mentioning that Djokovic did not win another major in 2012 and captured only one major (2013 Australian Open) in the next eight majors before his 2014 Wimbledon victory led to a resurgence.
Djokovic, had he won Sunday, wouldn’t just have completed the career Slam; he would have won two straight majors for the first time since the 2012 Australian Open, which came on the heels of the 2011 U.S. Open title and, for that matter, his 2011 Wimbledon title as well. Djokovic would have won three of the past four majors had he defeated Wawrinka in Paris. This match — like the 2012 Roland Garros final against Nadal — meant a ton to him.
We saw in 2012 that losing to Nadal in Paris sent him into a (relative, of course) funk. We should all have the kind of funk Djokovic endured for two years from mid-2012 through mid-2014, but for a man chasing history, that funk was costly. Another funk would be even more damaging, given that Djokovic has to maximize his prime while it’s still alive.
This is the biggest way in which Wawrinka d. Djokovic has changed the story of tennis…
… but Djokovic can still write the last chapter in a different way. It’s up to him to decide which words he wants to use.