June 7, 2015
Mental strength. That’s what Stan Wawrinka summoned to beat Novak Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in one of the great French Open finals. An astonishing will to win and a raw power so jaw-dropping that you sometimes wonder how it can be generated from Wawrinka’s modest frame.
Having squandered a match point and been second-guessed before he could set up another, many a player would have collapsed inside. Not Stan the Man. He just came right back again with fresh aggression, put himself a point from victory once more, and unleashed yet another stunning winner to end all winners.
It was over and that was the only sadness. One of the big shocks in tennis, a giant-killing which ended that long Djokovic unbeaten run, and with it his dreams of a Career Slam – at least for another year. This was the last on the list, the one he really wanted.
And yet, sportingly, Novak gave his conqueror a warm hug at the end and looked him straight in the eye to congratulate him. It was as though he was recognising a fellow sporting warrior. It was a marvellous moment to behold.
Djokovic was cheered seemingly endlessly by a crowd who had witnessed every moment of his sportsmanship and had appreciated it all. The warmth moved Novak to tears. He had probably never felt such love from any crowd outside Serbia. A fitting climax to an unforgettable event.
Novak said later: ‘Congratulations to Stan and his family. I have to say that there are some things more important than victory and they are character and respect. And to the French crowd I thank you for your ovation and I’ll keep trying to win this trophy.’
Wawrinka, the first man to win both his Grand Slam finals against world number ones (after Australia against Rafael Nadal) spoke eloquently after this, surely his greatest triumph.
‘I’ve so much respect for Novak. It’s a huge challenge to face him but his fair play is wonderful and I played the match of my life. I had to, because he has taken tennis to such a high level. My team have helped me, it’s a lot of hard work and it has finally paid off. Sometimes they have to kick my backside! But it is amazing to beat Novak, he is a terrific champion and he deserves to win Roland Garros.’
Not as much as Stan did. Wawrinka has just been through a very public divorce which still hasn’t really gone away. He put his troubles to the back of his mind, or more likely out of his mind entirely, and set about his ruthless, beautiful work on clay. He displayed an artistry that came straight from the tennis gods. Truly, Wawrinka was an unstoppable force.
The first set was typical Djokovic. Calm, composed and in control, because as usual he sensed when to pounce and how to take advantage of a moment’s weakness in his opponent.
The second and third were simply incredible, as Wawrinka outgunned the world number one with fizzing forehands and bullet backhands. At one point Stan the Man even pinged a single-handed backhand shin-high round the net and back into play. In the blink of an eye, it became irretrievable as the world watched open-mouthed.
What could stop Wawrinka now? Djokovic was almost on his knees, lacking power and energy, suffering perhaps from the after-effects of the two-day battle against Andy Murray. It seemed that Super Stan only had to keep his foot on the accelerator, continue to do exactly what he had been doing, and victory would be his.
Almost imperceptibly at first, Novak sprang back to life. Wawrinka tightened, lost his accuracy, and suddenly Djokovic was 3-0 ahead in the fourth. Had the Swiss seen the finishing line, that often-premature and fatal vision, causing him to forget what had taken him so close?
Temporarily, nerves replaced the bullying anger that had left Djokovic looking so lost. The confident winners had disappeared, but then Wawrinka found his touch again, tapping back into his own iron will. He soon broke back to level at 3-3, he was stealing the momentum once more and even led at 0-30 in Novak’s next service game. The French Open title was almost within his grasp.
But Djokovic is such a brave warrior too. He dug deep to summon the most ferocious fighting spirit, came up with some extraordinary shots at the net and from the baseline, held serve and assaulted Wawrinka’s. Back came Stan to save three break points in what was by now a titanic struggle between two men who both thoroughly deserved glory. Wawrinka held too, and after three hours they were still toe-to-toe at 4-4. No one wanted this to end, except of course the entire population of Switzerland.
How lucky we are to be able to welcome these awesome fighters to Wimbledon shortly. Andy Murray should watch a video of this match and keep watching it. This is the kind of mental strength it takes to win a Grand Slam now. Murray is going to have to get mean and even more brilliant if he is going to reach the kind of heights we saw at Roland Garros during this spectacular final.
What Wawrinka and Djokovic produced, both during and after this genuine epic, will never be forgotten.