French Open 2015: Stan Wawrinka powers past Tsonga to reach first Paris final

Stan Wawrinka secures a four-set win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to reach the final of the French Open for the first time

If the pressure on Andy Murray to become the first post-war finalist, let alone the champion, at the French Open was heavy, it was as nothing compared with the weight bearing down on the broad shoulders of home favourite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Not that the popular Frenchman and former Grand Slam finalist didn’t have plenty in his favour. First and foremost was the home crowd, one of the most vocal, game-changing crowds in sport. Their roars around Roland Garros wherever and whenever a French player was in action were probably heard at Notre Dame.

But working against him was the burden of expectation from that same crowd. There had not been a French men’s champion here since Yannick Noah in 1983. There had not been a Frenchman in the final since Henri Leconte in 1988. There had not been a Frenchman in any Major final since Tsonga himself at the Australian Open in 2008. Should he make the final here, Tsonga would be just the fifth Frenchman since 1925 to reach multiple Grand Slam finals.

But despite having reached the semis here in 2013, the 30-year-old Tsonga, still working his way back from an arm injury that sidelined him until the Miami Masters this year, had never won a title on clay, never even reached a clay final before. This was a big ask in oh so many ways.

He played Stan Wawrinka, who was in his first semi-final at Roland Garros at his 11th attempt. But unlike Tsonga, he had enjoyed considerable success on clay, won his first Masters in Monte Carlo last year, and had also reached the finals of both the Madrid and Rome Masters—as well as being a former Roland Garros junior champion.

And if he needed any more encouragement about his clay form, he made a semi run to the Rome final last month after recording his first clay win over Rafael Nadal, and then beat Roger Federer handily in the quarters here.

He was certainly not intending to be fazed by the French crowd, either: “When I played [Gilles] Simon on Lenglen, I got booed. It doesn’t really affect me. I don’t have any problem. I don’t think [crowd support] is what’s going to make me win or [Tsonga] win.”

It would, rather, be which of them could reproduce the sizzling form that both brought to bear against Federer and, in Tsonga’s case, against Kei Nishikori. For there was not much to choose between them in their previous encounters, 3-3, splitting their two previous contests at Roland Garros in 2011 and 2012—both of which were decided in five sets. Indeed every match but their four-set Davis Cup face-off last December had gone the distance.

It was the Swiss who came out with all guns blazing while Tsonga laid the ground work for what would be a hugely significant pattern in the match: failure to seize his break chances. He had three in the opening game but could not convert them, and instead Wawrinka—just as he had against Federer—opened his shoulders to fire perhaps the finest backhand in tennis through all parts of the court. He broke in the fourth game, and despite Tsonga having another break chance in the seventh, Wawrinka served out a 35-minute set, 6-3 with 13 winners to his name.

Tsonga looked subdued, and thus far was unable to give the crowd the excitement they wanted. Perhaps it was a hangover from his 3hr 50min evening quarter-final finish, perhaps it was the nerves of the moment, perhaps it was the heat. But he certainly didn’t have the spring in his step that this athletic man usually has. He attacked the net infrequently and Wawrinka fed off the vibe.

Again the Swiss broke quickly, in a long first game and served at 4-3, but too casually, and Tsonga was also roused into action, at last attacking the net, at last holding a love service game.

Wawrinka twice double faulted and Tsonga pounded two balls onto the lines to break. He made four straight winners, the first an ace, to hold to love, and then dug very deep through five break points—a nine-minute mini-marathon—to take the set to a tie-break. The momentum was with the Frenchman and he rode it through the game to win, 7-6(1).

Tsonga seemed to have the momentum through most of the third set, too. Wawrinka opened with a double fault, fought off break points, and then saw Tsonga hold to love. It was the same in the next game, with Wawrinka now taking treatment to a blistered finger.

The Swiss began to vocally urge himself on, firing a 10th ace to hold at 4-3, fighting off still more break points to go 5-4, and all the while Tsonga holding serve with ease. It would be another tie-break, and the resilience that Wawrinka had shown against Simon and Federer came to the fore with some terrific first-strike points to edge the lead. He sealed the 72-minute set, 7-6(3).

Not surprisingly, Tsonga looked flat after losing a set that, on paper, he should have won, and he was broken to love in the first game of the fourth after a double fault. He had the chance to break straight back, but resorted to several drop shots rather than the aggressive tennis that had worked so well in the second and third sets, and he suffered the consequences.

Even with Wawrinka wavering in the fourth game, Tsonga could not halt the serving of the Swiss on the key break points, and the Swiss edged, solid and strong, to the set, 6-4. He had made 60 winners to 47 errors, and saved 16 of 17 break points, edging the match by just three points, 151 to 148, after almost four hours of play.

Considering Wawrinka’s prowess and record on clay, it seems remarkable that his best run at Roland Garros was a single quarter-final in 2013. This year, he will take on Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic for the title—exactly 15 years after his coach Magnus Norman attempted his own title match.

Norman lost his final, but if Wawrinka wins here, the Swede will surely take a small part of the credit for injecting Wawrinka with the self-belief that has turned the Swiss from the great talent he was into a Grand Slam force.

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