Tennis, especially at Grand Slams, can be more of a gladiatorial combat than a mere sport. And like in combat, the result can be cruel for the player who did not win.
But even in the brutality and injustice, it is never not entertaining like the fourth-round match between Stan Wawrinka and Stefanos Tsitsipas at the French Open showed.
The sixth and 24th seed battled for five hours and nine minutes sustaining an extraordinary level for the duration, after playing for the third straight day. At the end of the titanic duel, one player had 195 points and the other 194.
The man with 194 points won, the one with 195 was left to rue the one shot he decided to leave, which became the match winner. The 2015 champion and 2017 runner up Wawrinka beat the reigning Next Gen ATP champion 7-6 (8/6), 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6 to set up a quarter-final clash with Roger Federer.
As for the fans, well to answer an oft-asked question, yes we were entertained.
An all-time classic
The last time Tsitsipas played a Grand Slam match against a seeded Swiss player, he caused one of the biggest upsets this year beating two-time defending champion Roger Federer 6-7 (11/13), 7-6 (7/3), 7-5, 7-6 (7/5) in the fourth round of Australian Open.
This time, he was the higher ranked player, playing a former champion who had lost so many close matches since coming back from a knee surgery in 2018, that he had fallen to world No 263. A year since losing in the first round at Roland Garros to unheralded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Wawrinka, he was now the 24th seed, still searching for that one win to prove, not to anyone else but himself, that he still belongs at this level.
On Sunday, the former world No 3 proved without a doubt that he has what it takes: the unique ability of a Grand Slam champion to outlast a five-set backbreaker and win with brain and brawn what might just be the best match of the 2019 French Open.
It wouldn’t be wrong to call it an all-time Grand Slam classic.
It was the fourth-longest match in tournament history, the kind of match that makes the best of five format worth it, the kind that does not deserve a loser at the end of it.
Wawrinka saved 22 of 27 break points he faced, including all eight in an intense fifth set, and converted the second of the only two break points he got in deciding set – the two match points. The match point itself was a classic in its own right: the slow-motion stunner a match like this deserved.
On the second, Tsitsipas came to net for the 74th time – a move that had given him mixed benefits through the match – and Wawrinka sliced his usually powerful backhand delicately down the line.
The ball curled around the net post and Tsitispas, in a split second call, left it. It glided down and kissed the court smack on the line. The umpire confirmed it, the ball was in and Wawrinka had won with one last stroke of that brutally genius racquet.
“Today, we saw only one centimetre can change the winner,” he said after embracing the rising star 14 years his junior at the net for a long time.
The match between two players who both have searing single-handed backhand and the expansive forehands was always going to be a cracker.
For the preceding two days, the Swiss was involved in another eye-pleasing contest with fellow one-handed backhand club member Grigor Dimitrov. Those fiery shots were mere prelude to what was served on Sunday.
In the first set, the Greek looked solid all over court and had a set point but Wawrinka served himself out of trouble and after 53 minutes of thrills, Tsitsipas committed a unfortunate double fault on set point.
The second set was another story as the youngster went into predator mode while “Stanimal” kept clawing. Wawrinka was 0-3 down, then came back to break his opponent serving for the set before Tsitsipas converted his sixth set point in the 74-minute-long set.
A solitary break gave Wawrinka the third set with relative ease but the world No 6 roared back in the fourth. In the shortest set of the match at 43 minutes, the Greek gained momentum against the Swiss who started diminishing.
It showed the great mentality Tsitsipas has and cast questions on the physicality of his 34-year-old opponent. But in the end, the warrior’s fearsome backhand trumped the philosopher’s court coverage.
Tsitsipas will only get better
The 20-year-old, with his clothes covered in red dirt after the frequent falls, mixed his shots up nicely and showed maturity beyond his age. But on the bigger points, his inexperience showed. As good as he was at the net – he won 50 of the 74 net points – the volleys he missed proved costly.
While he was trying to use his advantage at the net, Wawrinka was pressing his advantage from behind the baseline with searing groundstrokes…. and a shade of gamesmanship,
The Lausanne-born, French-speaking Swiss was blowing kisses and encouraging the crowd who cheered him in their native tongue. Periodically at big points, he conducted the crowd’s roar raising his hand to his ear. Before facing a break point in the second set, he had a chat with the umpire. His opponent was left flustered and raged at his own box to cheer for him.
But perhaps the biggest compliment the young Greek got was from his opponent himself. Several times in the match, Wawrinka applauded Tsitsipas’ audacious shots: a thumbs-up for a running stretching volley, racquet claps for seemingly impossible winners, and then the hug at the net at the end.
This response as well as Tsitsipas’ mental and physical wherewithal showed that the Greek is anything but a one-Slam wonder.
He was crushed by the one-sided loss to Rafael Nadal at Australian Open but went toe-to-toe with another Grand Slam champion with a personality as strong as his motivational quotes on social media suggest. This time, his heartbreak can be assuaged by the fact that he played a match for the ages. He has the ability to do big things at Grand Slams and he is only getting started. As he took a leaf out of Wawrinka’s book, he just has to try harder and fail better if need be.