By Sandra Harwitt
When it came to the French Open it always seemed like Rafael Nadal – the King of Clay who won at Roland Garros nine of the last 10 years – was the guy responsible for denying Novak Djokovic a French Open crown.
And for most of the past nine years that would be true. On six different occasions – four times in the semifinals and two times in the final — it was Nadal who turned back the Serbian. This year, however, was going to be different. You could just feel all the vibe was all about Djokovic from the minute he walked on the property.
The top seed, Djokovic finally had the better of his closest rival in Paris. And it wasn’t one of their usual marathon affairs where Djokovic got just so close, but couldn’t pull off the manoeuver. Nope, this time around, Djokovic knocked that crown right off of Nadal’s head in an exquisite 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 quarterfinal display.
The Nadal victory made the setup perfect. Surely this was Djokovic’s year to complete his personal Grand Slam collection – all that he’s missing is the Roland Garros trophy.
Not only is Djokovic the clear-cut No. 1 player in the world, but his year’s been incredible. He fronts the leaderboard with a now 41-3 win-loss record He has a tour leading five titles this season – Australian Open, Indian Wells-1000, Miami-1000, Monte Carlo-1000, and Rome-1000.
But, unfortunately, sometimes the best of plans – or hopes – don’t pan out. Once again, Djokovic’s desire for a French Open victory was thwarted. This time around Djokovic came up against an inspired Stan Wawrinka. If you think they call him “Stanimal” for nothing, think again.
Wawrinka is armed with the premiere one-handed backhand in the men’s game, the shot can rip a crater into a clay court. He played with speed and a ferocious determination that made him the dominator, although he admittedly started off nervous. All that added up to the Swiss winning his second career Grand Slam title with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Djokovic at the French Open. His first came at the 2014 Australian Open.
It isn’t his first French Open title, however, as he won the junior boys’ trophy in 2003.
The eighth seed, Wawrinka would indicate he played one of the matches of his life on Sunday afternoon. Djokovic, classy in defeat, would confirm that Wawrinka deserved to be the champion.
“He was the better player in the second so he deserved to win that one, and the third and the fourth,” Djokovic said. “He took his chances whenever they were presented. He played some really good tactical tennis and also very aggressive shots in some break points, like in 4-all in the fourth, the winner passing shot down the line. All I can do is to say, ‘Well done.’ He deserves it.”
Djokovic wasn’t helped by his Andy Murray semifinal in which the Briton refused to surrender quickly. On top of that, organizers were expecting an iminent big storm on Friday night – it ended up raining for all of five minutes — and held the match over for conclusion on Saturday. So while Wawrinka rested up and prepared for the final on Saturday, Djokovic still had work to be done.
But the Serbian wasn’t willing to put the burden for his loss anywhere but with himself. He acknowlged the Nadal quarterfinal and Murray semifinal were physically and emotionally demanding, but many matches in the latter stages of a Grand Slam have those characteristics.
“I don’t want to come up with excuse, saying these two matches took a lot out of me and I lost today,” Djokovic said. “I don’t think that’s fair to Stan. I don’t think that’s fair to sit here and whine now about what has happened.”
When Djokovic accepted the French Open finalist trophy for the third time in his career on Sunday the fans went crazy. They cheered and cheered and cheered – they wouldn’t stop – and it brought quite a few tears to his eyes to be so revered.
“Yes, I respect the appreciation they show me, and it was more or less the same situation last year in closing ceremony. This is something that definitely gives me even more motivation to come back and keep on trying.”
And there is no doubt that Djokovic will continue his campaign for a first career French Open honor.
But for now, this day in Paris belongs to Wawrinka, the guy who for some many years walked in the shadow of his friend, Roger Federer. But these days he’s the Swiss-made man who is center stage. In fact, he was the player who ended the second seeded Federer’s French Open this year in a three-set quarterfinal encounter.
To take an accounting, Wawrinka now has two Grand Slam titles, a Davis Cup title and a gold medal in doubles, with Federer, from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That’s a pretty significant booty.
“This one is really special, for sure, playing Novak here in final, the No.1 player,” Wawrinka said. “He won almost everything since beginning of the year. Especially the way I played and the way I finished the match, the way I was focused all the match, the way I changed the momentum….I’m really happy with the trophy tonight.”
Wawrinka’s been going through a public second breakup with his wife that came to light during the Monte Carlo tournament in April, which has made recent times a bit difficult. Even on the eve of this French Open the official website put up a surprisingly tabloidesque story on his marital troubles, and he blasted the organizers for allowing it to be put up on the site. Needless to say it quickly came down and some editorial heads rolled.
“I’m still surprised that in two months I can win the French Open, because I wasn’t in good shape after Monaco,” Wawrinka said. “It was tough, tough moment for me. To say that now I won the French Open, it’s something completely crazy.”
On Sunday, the 31-year-old became one of five men in the Open Era to win the French Open title over the age of 30, joining Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Andres Gimeno and Andres Gomez in having that distinction. He is the oldest man to win a Grand Slam trophy since his countryman Federer won the 2012 Wimbledon title at 31 years of age.
Wawrinka’s been playing at the French since 2005, but his success hasn’t been soaring. His best showing prior to becoming champion this year was to reach the quarterfinals in 2013.
Wawrinka, who hasn’t mised a Grand Slam event since debuting at the French Open in 2005 — that makes this his 41st consecutive major — goes home with his inaugural French Open trophy, presumably to be displayed right alongside his Australian Open winner’s prize.
“I feel calm, quiet, and relaxed,” said Wawrinka, after his win. “These are strange feelings. It’s very difficult to say what you feel. A lot of emotions. A lot of pride, as well. But it takes time to come to terms with that victory. It’s a second Grand Slam, but it’s not always easy to digest. It’s very speciic. It’s the epitome of my career, but it’s very difficult to look back.”