Stan Wawrinka recently achieved something quite unusual in the tennis world... so strange I think it must be called an anomaly.
We must travel back all the way to 1990 to find another French Open Champion who hoisted the winner's trophy at the over-ripe tennis age of 30. Back then, Andres Gomez of Ecuador captured his first and only grand slam event scoring a major upset over the superstar youngster Andre Agassi. To locate another over-30 French winner, climb back in the time machine to 1972 when the Spaniard Andres Gimeno won his one and only grand slam event at the deathbed tennis age of 35.
Eighteen months ago, at the 2014 Australian Open Stan "The Man" Wawrinka broke through to gain his first grand slam tournament victory. To win a first major at 28 is unusual enough. Stan Wawrinka turned professional at 17 and has competed in well over 40 of the "Big Four" events. Before this quantum leap of 2014, his previous dozen years at Slam tournaments had yielded only one Wimbledon quarterfinal (2014) and one U.S. Open semifinal (2013).
What is distinctive about Wawrinka that has allowed him to become such a late bloomer? In tennis, a minute fraction of players win their first major championship at age 28. Most journeymen have long established their place in the tennis ranking hierarchy. Game styles are long developed and entrenched; staying healthy is as much of a focus as anything. What has allowed Wawrinka to transcend this natural evolution and continue to elevate his game? I say he possesses an undefinable mental intangible with which he empowers himself to keep reaching new highs. It is some rare trait, a unique resilience to keep getting up off the mat time and again after getting knocked silly year after year.
Sunday June 7 was supposed to be the day Novak Djokovic would subdue the red clay in Paris and became only the eighth man in tennis history to win all four major championships. After all, he had dominated Stan Wawrinka, winning 19 of 22 previous meetings. This statistic is somewhat misleading, however. In his amazing January 2014 run, Wawrinka passed through Novak in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, prevailing in five grueling sets. So nearly all of the Djokovic wins came earlier in the Wawrinka career when he was a much less formidable force.
What Is Unique About the French Open?
Some consider the "French" the toughest of the four major tennis championships to conquer. The fiery John McEnroe led by two sets and a service break in the third set of the 1984 final against Ivan Lendl, yet even he could not latch the door shut. He retired without a French title. The only omission in the impeccable resume of Pete Sampras is the failure to conquer the dirt at Roland Garros. It has eluded multiple grand slam tournament winners Boris Becker and Stephan Edberg. Of the great Roger Federer's 17 "major" championships, but one comes from Paris.
Why has Roland Garros eluded the grasp of some of the greatest of all champions? The red clay markedly slows down the bounce of the ball, extending duration of the rallies; so endurance in the best of five set matches is at a premium. But fitness to these elites was never an encumbering issue. But the slower bounce does have a significant dampening effect on players that rely on overpowering opponents, especially with their serves. Pete Sampras and Boris Becker fall into this category. While both possessed great all round games, both relied on banging aces, holding serve easily, which put great pressure on opponents. McEnroe and Edberg also had excellent serves that they often followed to the net where perhaps they had the two best volleys in tennis. Serve and volley was alive and well in the '80s, but the slow clay at Roland Garros gave opponents a split second more time to return the serve. Those microseconds of time turn into a huge advantage for the serve returner. To conquer at Roland Garros requires an all-around game with infinite patience and endurance. In a game where composite fiber racquets deliver 150MPH serves, the red clay in Paris plays the role of great equalizer; players who rely on court movement and groundstrokes are given opportunity to compete better against serves that attack like coming out of a rocket launcher.
So even more impressive is that besides the onset of senescence, Stan Wawrinka's second grand slam win comes at the French Open. He has got that complete game; no one shot that dominates his arsenal. His one-handed backhand may be the finest in the game today, (better than the one-hander of Frenchman Richard Gasquet). In a time when the one-handed backhand is practically an anachronism, the Wawrinka left side exhibits a versatility of finesse and power with a stylish elegance. He serves big and moves well around the net. Also, that his one-handed backhand could prevail on the clay over the greater precision of the Djokovic two-hander, only confirms his remarkable talent. He is only six feet tall; not the prototypical six-foot, eight-inch giant who if you take away their serve, they are rendered virtually impotent.
After Andres Gomez captured the French, he fell off the cliff. He won one more tournament but never again came close to competing for a major title. The amazing Wawrinka continues pressing higher. Watch for him to make at least the final four at Wimbledon.
He has played distant second fiddle to Swiss countryman Roger Federer for his entire career. Now is his time in the spotlight. It is well-deserved.