The 2015 Roland Garros men’s singles final between Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka carried the weight of history. It also carried the flavors of the 2009 final between a Swiss player and a man who had beaten Rafael Nadal earlier in the tournament.
In 2009, one man was trying to win a career Grand Slam, with Nadal — ruler of Roland for nine of the past 11 years — safely out of the way. Roger Federer stepped inside Court Philippe Chatrier against Robin Soderling, trying to win the one title that had eluded him for so long.
The parallels between 2009 and 2015 were considerable in number, and require very little in the way of elaboration beyond the simple facts:
1) One of the two players — the underdog, to be specific — was coached by Magnus Norman, a former Roland Garros finalist as a player. (The man he lost to, Gustavo Kuerten, was on hand for this 2015 final on Sunday in Paris.)
2) The favorite and slam-seeker — Federer — had just come through a nerve-addled five-set semifinal that almost got away from him.
3) The underdog — Soderling — had reached a first Roland Garros final after many years of prior failures to make a deep run in Paris. Moreover, said underdog improved because of a specific ability to hit bigger and more offensively, an underappreciated virtue on a surface (red clay) which demands defense, but also a transition game that can use defensive acumen as a weapon.
4) The favorite — Federer — had played Nadal in the semifinals or final (specifically in his case, the final) each of the previous three years (actually four, but this includes a three-year stretch from 2006 through 2008).
Each of those realities found a perfect match in the scene we were presented on Sunday, six years later:
Wawrinka was coached by Norman. That matches scenario No. 1.
Djokovic had just survived an uneasy five-set semifinal against Andy Murray. That matches scenario No. 2.
Wawrinka made his first Roland Garros final after going 0 for 10 in the attempt to get that far. That matches scenario No. 3.
Djokovic had played Nadal in the semifinals or final (specifically in his case, two finals and one semifinal, but that semi was the essential final of the 2013 tournament…) in each of the previous three years.
So much about the 2015 final felt a lot like 2009.
There was only one thing left to ask: Which form of history would repeat itself?
History WAS going to repeat itself, after all: Either another man would complete the career Grand Slam in Paris, or a Swiss man would win in such a situation.
If you were a betting person, you would have chosen the former scenario.
Stan Wawrinka justified the faith and confidence of those bold souls who chose the latter one.
The key word in that last sentence? Bold… because that’s what Wawrinka needed to be in order to shock the world, and that’s exactly what the Swiss was on a day that shifted reputations (as major finals often but not always do).
After this match — a four-set rollercoaster that encountered all sorts of peaks and valleys — Novak Djokovic said Wawrinka was “more courageous.” It was an accurate statement, but it’s not something most people were prepared to expect. Moreover, it’s not something which applied to the first set, the set which made the afternoon’s ultimate result so surprising.
In set one, Djokovic was locked and loaded. The world No. 1 carried himself as such, calmly and methodically breaking down Wawrinka with the caliber of defense Nadal has used to own Roland Garros the past decade. Djokovic entered this match having supplanted Nadal as the world’s best claycourt player — surely not on any all-time scale, but in the present moment, June of 2015. Nothing in the first set did anything to even remotely suggest that Djokovic was going to be denied in his quest for history.
If nerves briefly entered Djokovic’s game, the Serbian superstar swatted them away late in the set to tuck it away, 6-4. The scoreline might have been close, but as was so often the case in a 7-5 or 6-4 Nadal set over Federer in past Roland Garros finals, there was such an unmistakable awareness of which player owned the bigger moments, to the extent that the scoreline felt more lopsided. If Djokovic was going to buckle in the face of the pressure he carried on Sunday, the first set was likely (not guaranteed, mind you, but likely) to be that indicator.
When he cruised to a one-set lead, history felt very close at hand.
However, as Ivan Lendl at Wimbledon or Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras at Roland Garros could tell you, history has to be trapped, tied up, and buried in the ground before its life can be fully extinguished.
Djokovic started this match in full control, but the player who almost always goes through one bad patch at some point in a tournament picked the worst time in his still-legendary career to play his worst set at Roland Garros in 2015.
Set two was when this match changed. Wawrinka was, on balance, a very solid player in set two. He did not spray many errors, and he generally carried the run of play, but on the break-point chances he was donated in the latter half of the second set, he tightened up. Wawrinka could have won the set by a wider margin, but at the changeover following the ninth game of the set, the Swiss was merely on serve at 5-*4, with Djokovic serving.
Here’s the essential realization to make about the second set: A solid Stan Wawrinka will beat many players, but not Novak Djokovic. The world No. 1, who so clinically defused Nadal in the quarterfinals and was flawless in the fifth set against Murray on Saturday, has established a standard much higher than any of his peers in 2015. He’s gobbled up Masters 1000 titles left and right (the only one he didn’t win, Madrid, was the one he didn’t play). He took the Australian Open and had laid the tennis world at his feet. Head coach Boris Becker had improved his mentality and his first serve (at least, Djokovic said as much in the days preceding this final).
Djokovic, when operating anywhere close to the height of his powers, should be able to subdue anything less than a blazing-hot version of Wawrinka (more on this in a little bit). In the second set, that version of Wawrinka was not present — a B-plus version, but not the A-game.
Yet, Djokovic — with all too many routine errors and a first serve that ceased to be dependable — watched his level of play drop sharply compared to the marker he threw down in the first set.
It is always important to be able to judge a competition based on how much the winner wins and how much the loser loses. In set two, Wawrinka did plenty to win, but a fair appraisal of that set would claim that Djokovic lost the set just as much as the Swiss won it. Wawrinka might have failed on several break points throughout the set, but Djokovic’s pronounced inconsistency kept giving the Swiss opportunities, and when serving at 4-5, Djokovic capitulated.
Wawrinka didn’t soar in set two; Djokovic fell.
However, when given that second set, Wawrinka — to his great and everlasting credit — made full use of it. It’s the very thing a great champion such as Djokovic has done to opponents over many years, especially since his massive 2011 march through the ATP Tour (a season he might still replicate in 2015 if he can regroup from this loss).
If set two was about the drop in Djokovic’s level of play, set three was all about Wawrinka finding that special place athletes always hope to reach in big moments: THE ZONE.
Wawrinka crushed his world-class backhand and peppered Djokovic with a well-above-average forehand. His energy and court coverage, restricted by pressure and the oppressive heat in his semifinal survival act against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, improved by leaps and bounds in set three. Wawrinka produced a masterclass in that set, and Djokovic really couldn’t have done much about it. Djokovic’s mistake did not emerge in set three; it was his drop in intensity and focus which enabled Wawrinka to gain fresh belief in set two.
In set four, clearly the best set of the match — when both players showed their best at the same time — Djokovic raised his level of play. He bolted to a 3-0 lead. However, Wawrinka, following an early lull, was able to stay with him and create a series of highly compelling heart-in-mouth sequences.
At 3-3, 15-40, Djokovic produced two steely reflex plays at net to dig out of trouble and hold for 4-3. Serving at 3-4, Wawrinka fell behind, 0-40, and it appeared for all the world that a fifth set was imminent. Yet, the Swiss saved all three break points with that courageous tennis Djokovic referred to after the match had ended. Some break points are wasted by the losing player, but this was a case in which Wawrinka earned each of those break-point saves at 0-40. This is why the fourth set was the best in the match — players won games and points because of the successful things they did, not because opponents flinched.
Now, the denouement:
One constant truth of tennis is that the most dangerous service game is the one which comes after the opponent saves break-point chances. Wawrinka walked over the hot coals of this situation at 3-4, but Djokovic could not when serving at 4-4. A vintage down-the-line backhand by Wawrinka on break point put him in position to serve for the championship, a championship made supremely improbable by the fact that the Swiss had tumbled out of an ATP 250 tournament (the Geneva Open) in the quarterfinal round just three days before this French Open began.
Realize this about Wawrinka’s final service game at 5-4 in the fourth: In the 2014 Australian Open final, his previous major title, Wawrinka’s last service game was not overloaded with pressure. A clearly ailing Rafael Nadal did not (and realistically, could not) pose the same kind of threat Djokovic did on Sunday. Djokovic might not have been playing at an otherworldly height, but he was not physically impaired. This was Wawrinka’s first true encounter with the proposition of having to serve out a major title with a healthy opponent on the other side of the net.
Everyone in Paris wondered how Wawrinka would handle the pressure.
When a possible ace on his first championship point was ruled out (correctly) by the chair umpire, Wawrinka had to deal with the exquisite torture of having his hopes raised, if even for a tiny moment, only to see them dashed. When Djokovic won the next two points to get a break chance, it seemed that another classic Nole escape was about to take flight.
Wawrinka shut the door.
Confident serves and follow-up groundstrokes saw him home, finishing the job on a second championship point.
Djokovic started the match as the far more confident player, but thanks to the hinge-point events of set two, these men switched places over the course of the proceedings. At the end, Wawrinka was the better and — instructively — bolder player.
Fortune favors the bold, and it now favors a man who has won two major titles, showing that he’s not a one-hit wonder.
More will be said on this match in a French Open wrap-up post, to be published in the next 24 hours. There is a lot more to say in the coming days about the way in which Wawrinka has affirmed everything else about his emergence as a big-moment player in men’s tennis. Wawrinka has now won two majors, a Masters 1000, and a Davis Cup in the past 17 months. It might be improbable, but it is now fact that Wawrinka is rapidly approaching Andy Murray — long considered a member of tennis’s Big Four — in terms of top-shelf career achievements. That’s something to chew on for the coming days.
Today’s last word, though, has to belong to Djokovic, the man whose quest for history was two routine sets away from ending… but which must now wait another year.
It is too remarkable to comprehend: The man who hunted down Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros after years of trying, the man who yearned for this title and had the game perfectly suited to claim it, met a non-Nadal opponent on Championship Sunday… and fell short.
The man whose mental game had so clearly improved under Boris Becker — and not just from a pundit’s distant perspective, but according to his own words — fell into a familiar rut of mental lethargy in a major final. Djokovic wasn’t sick the way he was against Nadal in the 2014 final. For whatever reason, the man who had done so much to overcome breathing problems and other nervous tics in the earlier stages of his career — when he struggled to find the ruthless consistency that began to emerge for him in 2011 — lost his edge in set two. Wawrinka was legitimately great in sets three and four, but that second set will be the moment Djokovic remembers for another 11.5 months of sheer Roland Garros torture.
Djokovic was about to win two straight majors for the first time since he won three in a row from 2011 Wimbledon through the 2012 Australian Open. Djokovic was about to transform his reputation from a modern-day Lendl (the man who reached stacks of major finals but lost most of them) to a guy who was going to make a serious run at Nadal’s and Federer’s major trophy hauls…
… about to.
Then, however, “about to” vanished into the late-afternoon Parisian sky.
It is all too unfathomably painful and cruel to contemplate.
We close with a baseball comparison:
Gene Mauch won over 1,900 games as a Major League Baseball manager. He is widely acknowledged as one of the smartest and most capable managers in baseball history.
In 1964, though, his Philadelphia Phillies team lost a 6.5-game lead in the standings with 12 games left in the season. The Phillies and Mauch missed the World Series in a most improbable way.
Eighteen years later, in 1982, Mauch’s California Angels led the Milwaukee Brewers, two games to none, in the best-of-five-game American League Championship Series. Just one win in three games would have given Mauch his first appearance in the World Series. The Angels lost all three games.
In 1986, the moment had finally arrived… or at least, it was about to.
Mauch’s Angels led the Boston Red Sox, 3 games to 1, in the now best-of-seven American League Championship Series. (Yes, if it had still been best-of-five, the Angels would have won the series.) The Angels led Game 5 and were one out away from winning… but that out never came. Boston’s Dave Henderson hit a two-out, go-ahead home run to keep the Angels outside the winner’s circle. Later, the Angels had the winning run on third with fewer than two outs, but could not score him. Boston won the game the next inning in Anaheim.
The teams flew to Boston for Games 6 and 7. The Angels were brokenhearted. Boston rolled over the Halos to win the series.
Mauch never made the World Series, for all of his achievements and acumen. Sometimes, truly great sportsmen and sportswomen — though continuously giving themselves chances to accomplish the very thing they’ve spent their whole lives trying to do — just don’t cross that final threshold.
It was true for Mauch as a baseball manager.
It was true for Lendl at Wimbledon.
It was true for David Nalbandian at all the majors, and similarly so for the likes of Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina.
Will Novak Djokovic go without the French Open in his career? Will a resurgent Nadal be there to deny him next year and the year after that, leaving Djokovic at age 31 (in 2018) without this championship?
We don’t know how the question will be answered, but the fact that the question is still able to be asked after today — and after that first set — is torture enough for Djokovic.
The Serbian sportsman handled his loss with supreme class and graciousness, but will tennis pay him back with a future Roland Garros title?
This sport, which we all love and marvel at — especially after a highly theatrical and compelling final earned by Stan Wawrinka — offers no such guarantees.