Stan the man delivers more Paris pain for Djokovic
Just when you thought men's tennis had settled into a steady pattern under the absolute monarchy of Novak Djokovic, the unassuming Stan Wawrinka popped up yesterday to deliver a display of such thrilling, fearless strokeplay that no one who was lucky enough to be on Court Philippe Chatrier is likely to forget it.
If the realities of sport tend to suggest that the rational, percentage approach is the one that brings results, then Wawrinka's 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 victory was also a win for the romantics. He delivered on every level, serving like a siege-gun and unleashing his picture-perfect backhand with gusto.
The shot of the tournament may have been the ripping backhand winner that he hit from so wide that it actually went around the net, threading the tiny gap between the post and the IBM box that stands next to it.
However, it is one thing to swing so fiercely at every ball when you are a set down. It is quite another to maintain that intensity and courage when you surge back into contention and then start streaking into the lead.
The prospect of a grand-slam trophy - Wawrinka's second in just under 18 months - would have made lesser men falter, but he showed no sign of nerves, even when Djokovic threatened to make one of his trademark comebacks.
It was a phenomenal display, especially when you consider that Wawrinka went through such a lean period earlier this year that he failed to win back-to-back matches for three months. Many believed that his spring slump was the consequence of upheavals in his home life, given that he announced his imminent divorce from wife Ilham just after a particularly limp defeat in Monte Carlo.
In fact, these issues were explored in a controversial piece published on the French Open's website on the first day of the tournament, which the normally placid Wawrinka described as a "s--- article".
When the subject came up in the press conference yesterday, he gave an oblique but still revealing reply. "It's important when you're an athlete that you can focus on what you're doing," Wawrinka said. "I'm still surprised that in two months I can win the French Open, because I wasn't in good shape after Monaco. It was a tough, tough moment for me."
If Wawrinka is now single again, the trend among the other leading men is heading in the opposite direction. Both Andy Murray and Djokovic have married in the past year, and Djokovic has previously credited the arrival of his first child with bringing a new relaxation to his game. His record since Stefan's birth in October had been flawless at the biggest events.
Yet the French Open is different, simply because of his long run of near-misses here. On the eve of this match Amelie Mauresmo, Murray's coach, had suggested that Djokovic was feeling the pressure of chasing the one title in tennis that he had never won. "He is very tense there, very tense," she said. "Everyone sees it. In his attitude, in his shots."
Mauresmo's judgment was born out by events. Djokovic played a steady first set but his level dropped in the second and he invited Wawrinka to start unfurling that bonecrusher of a backhand. It was surely the sense of being on the verge of history that inhibited him, for only four men - Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - have completed the set of major titles in the Open era.
However, there was one other factor to take into account. Wawrinka's sheer power disconcerts opponents, because it is impossible to cover the court against him.
His backhand is not just powerful, it is almost impossible to read, and one suspects that Nadal's physical breakdown in the Australian Open final of 2014 was also influenced by the anxiety of facing such a devastating opponent.
The turning point of the match, according to Djokovic's own analysis, came in the last game of the second set. Serving at 4-5, he led 30-0 but was pushed back by a pair of screaming winners from Wawrinka - the first of them a classic backhand pass played on the run, the second a forehand up the line.
For once in his life Djokovic reacted poorly to the pressure, coughing up two wild backhand errors to hand over the set. He promptly obliterated his racquet with a pair of venomous smashes into the clay, and was actually quite fortunate that the splintered frame did not bounce up into the ballboy who was handing him his towel at the same moment.
"You go through emotions," Djokovic said later. "Of course I was more nervous than any other match. It's the final of Roland Garros. But there are two players who want to win this trophy, not just me. So I think people tend to create a story where nobody wants to win it as much as I do; this is completely untrue."
Wawrinka finally finished off proceedings in the most appropriate fashion, striking yet another backhand winner down the line.
Djokovic could not stop the tears flowing at the trophy presentation as he received a standing ovation as runner-up for the second consecutive year.
"In life some things are more important than victories: character and respect," he said, in a hugely dignified speech. "I have a great respect for you, Stan." (© Daily Telegraph, London)