An interesting piece of trivia made the rounds before the start of the 2017 French Open final between Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka in Paris on Sunday. Nadal was undefeated in his nine previous finals at Roland Garros, while Wawrinka’s overall record in finals was just as impressive. The 32-year-old Wawrinka had won all three previous finals he had contested in his career, which included his 2015 French Open win over Novak Djokovic.
Something had to give. But, analysing the various components of both their games, it became clear that it was the Spaniard who went in with the advantage over his Swiss rival. And that’s exactly how it turned out in the end as Nadal comprehensively swept past Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.
The contrast in styles
Wawrinka reaps – and has reaped throughout these two weeks in Paris – a rich share of dividends through his going-for-broke offensive game that relies on sheer power. But Nadal is different – he has the ability to turn this strength of an opponent into a weakness for him to prey on. Wawrinka was facing rough terrain from the get go. To add to this, the weather forecast for the day also made it tougher for him, with the expected sunny conditions allowing Nadal to come out swinging with his topspin-laden shots.
In the 125-minute match, Nadal frequently whipped the ball across by sharply angling them, not just off his forehands, but also through his backhand wing. Thus, it gave Wawrinka no option except to run deeply side-to-side to retrieve and send them back.
Furthermore, Nadal positioned himself at the baseline, and often well inside it, to take the ball early and cut into Wawrinka’s reaction time by dispatching the ball back quicker. Doing so allowed the Spaniard to make dual inroads into the world No 3’s game.
For one, even if Wawrinka finished picking the shot and sent it back over the net, Nadal set himself at the net to ensure that he finished off the point on his terms. Secondly, even when Nadal did not go to the net, his rapid-fire movement in attempting to reach there made Wawrinka unsteady on his passing shots, which resulted in errors. It reflected in the number of unforced errors coming from Wawrinka’s racquet – 29 to Nadal’s relatively paltry 12.
The one-sided nature of the match was also boosted by Nadal’s unassailable serving. Nadal dropped just seven points off his first serves and capitalised on 83% points off that arsenal of his, despite putting in just 65% of his first serves. In comparison, Wawrinka lost 24 points on his first serve which came to him, winning merely 52% points, after putting 58% of his first serves in.
In the context of Nadal’s serving dominance, it’s important to note that Wawrinka had just one break point in the match – in the third game of the first set – before Nadal extinguished it to win the game with his first ace of the match.
Getting the attitude right
Called clay in English, the reference to the surface is quite animated when it’s described in French – terre battue – and in Spanish – pista de tierra batida. Especially in the latter, there’s a certain earthiness in the description, much like the player dominating on it – like none other.
As Nadal tightened his grip over the match, he also looked to have extended it to coat his intensity and his drive. He held his emotions in check, except for the fist-pumps and glaring eyes that he’s prone to, but there was no hiding his single-mindedness to find a swifter way to get to the podium. At the opposite end, it’s this aspect that let Wawrinka down as he lost confidence and became mired in so much self-doubt that his shoulders started to droop.
In the end, it’s this element that thrusts Nadal’s 10th French Open under the brightest of spotlights. Beyond following through with tactical strategies, the winner is also determined by the player who channelises their inner self. From 2005 unto 2017, this has then been the parable around which Nadal’s Roland Garros journey is based that has seen the completion of the once-unimaginable La Decima.