PARIS — A day after Stan Wawrinka won a clay-court title in Geneva, he arrived at Roland Garros — the same day the French Open started. He admitted this was a little unusual and left him precious little time to even think about his title defense. Nearly every question in his pre-tournament news conference was intended to get him to wax rhapsodic about his dream run here last year and the colossal upset he pulled off in the final against top-ranked Novak Djokovic.
But a sleepy-looking Wawrinka didn’t seem eager to be taken back there. He said last year was last year, it’s over, and that’s that.
“Novak is the favorite here, for sure,” Wawrinka insisted. “That’s a fact.”
Then Wawrinka took the court in his first-round match Monday and played like truer words were never spoken.
Wawrinka had to rally from a two-sets-to-one deficit against unseeded Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic to avoid becoming the first man in the Open era to sandwich first-round defeats in Paris around winning the French Open title. The outcome was so in doubt for so long that at the end of his 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 escape, Wawrinka raised his arms and stuck out his tongue like he was relieved.
Asked later if he knew what bad history he would’ve made with a loss, Wawrinka smirked and said, “No. And it’s still not the case, so that’s good.” Then he laughed.
Maybe Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, two of Wawrinka’s best friends on tour, are good enough to preen afterward as if they know all along they have these kind of gnarly matches won. But the 31-year-old Wawrinka, who is seeded third here this year, often devotes a good amount of time to telling everyone how good he is not. And that’s a bit different, too, considering he’s one of the few men who have broken the hegemony at the top of men’s tennis.
There’s the Big Four, who seem to win every Grand Slam title in sight — and then, somewhere behind them, “there’s me,” Wawrinka likes to say.
Wawrinka seems to believe his colossal upset of Djokovic in last year’s French Open final was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime thing rather than just, as he said then, the “match of his life” to that point.
Nobody saw it coming, really. Wawrinka arrived at the tournament in personal turmoil. His marriage was breaking up, and he was angry about stories in the press that included some of the details. He tore into the second week of the tournament anyway. Then, despite battling a bad case of nerves and even turning to his coach, Magnus Norman, and saying, “What the f— am I doing here?” just before taking the court for the final, Wawrinka played an extraordinary match.
He went out against Djokovic and ripped off an amazing 60-30 edge in winners against unforced errors. He fearlessly matched the Serb star power groundstroke for power groundstroke, often in rallies that frequently stretched past 15, then 20, even 30 shots.
How great was that?
“Honestly, I didn’t think that I could be in a position to win another Grand Slam tournament,” Wawrinka said then. “I amazed myself.”
Maybe being constantly on guard and acutely aware of his place in the tennis stratosphere is how Wawrinka keeps his edge. Even in his little country of Switzerland, he’s always been second banana to Federer, and that will never, ever change.
He is also frank about seeing himself as someone who can beat anyone on tour or lose to anyone.
That seemed true early on against Rosol. Wawrinka’s movements seemed sluggish at the start. His timing on his groundstrokes was noticeably off. Like Federer, Wawrinka has one of the most beautiful one-handed backhands on tour, and it was a weapon he used to great effect last year while beating Djokovic.
But for a good long while in Monday’s match, Wawrinka struggled so badly to find his rhythm that he actually flubbed five or six balls off his racket frame and missed a gimme overhead. His feet sometimes seem nailed to the baseline, and the more animated Rosol took full advantage of all of it early on.
When Wawrinka shanked a backhand reply off his racket frame to give Rosol the third set, the crowd at Philippe Chatrier began to murmur. Could Wawrinka really be going down on a dreary day more suited for a horror-movie shoot than a tennis match after shaking up this same stadium with so much magic just last year? Shouldn’t he have skipped Geneva to focus more on this Grand Slam? Let the second-guessing begin …
Wawrinka never really looked home free until he broke Rosol’s serve in the third game of the last set.
Then, Wawrinka being Wawrinka, he just shrugged afterward and said “it was big trouble.” But all’s well that ends well.
He was asked yet again to describe the emotion he felt taking the court where he’d raised the trophy last year, and again he paused a bit before answering.
It’s as if he cannot tell a lie.
“[The memory] was great, but it was short,” Wawrinka said, shrugging again. “I came back to play a match. Not to enjoy and think about what I did last year.”