French Open 2015: Wawrinka and Bacsinszky keep Swiss rolling as Federer falls

Whichever way one measures the French Open for Switzerland, there is plenty to write home about

It has proved to be a something of groundbreaker for the nation with a population approximately the size as Greater London: Switzerland had, for the first time, three players in the quarter-finals of the French Open.

For as one of those three, Roger Federer, said after reaching his own 44th Grand Slam quarter-final on Sunday: “There aren’t too many Swiss players in the draw.”

But as luck would have it, No2 seed and former champion Federer was drawn to play the other Swiss man, No8 seed Stan Wawrinka. The bad news was, only one could progress; the good news was, there would certainly be a Swiss man in the semi-finals.

But this year there could also be a Swiss in the semis in the shape of women’s No 23 seed, Timea Bacsinszky, who topped her defeat of No16 seed Madison Keys with a victory over Wimbledon champion and No4 seed Petra Kvitova.

What makes the presence of Bacsinszky more unexpected is that the last time three Swiss made it to quarters of a Major, at last year’s US Open, the men were the same but the woman in question was fast-rising teenager Belinda Bencic.

At the end of last year, Bencic surged to a ranking-high of 32 after a break-out year that began with her winning her first Grand Slam match in Australia, reach the semis in Charleston, the third round at Wimbledon and end the year at the Tianjin final.

And this year, Bencic beat Caroline Wozniacki in a third-round run at Indian Wells and reached the fourth round in Miami. So with comparisons with former Grand Slam champion Martina Hingis, the original ‘Swiss Miss,’ already ringing in her ears—and her nimble all-court style of tennis does have echoes of Hingis—Bencic was making many Swiss headlines. But come the clay season, she had found wins harder to come by.

Step up older compatriot, Bacsinszky, who was quietly making waves of her own.

The woman from Lausanne, who turns 26 the day after this year’s French Open reaches its climax, made her first breakthrough when she was still a teen, too, winning the Luxembourg title. But having reached the top 50, she suffered repeated foot and ankle injuries, plummeted to 285, before finally breaking back into the top 50 at the end of last year.

Already in 2015, she had won not one but two titles back-to-back in Acapulco and Monterrey. And it didn’t stop there: she made the finals of Shenzhen, the quarters of Indian Wells and Marrakech and now had trumped her Round 3 run in Australia with a quarter run here.

Indeed this year, only Carla Suarez Navarro has won more matches than the Swiss, so from being a qualifier here 12 months ago, Bacsinszky will make her top-20 debut after the tournament. And should she make the win today, she would be the first female Swiss Grand Slam semi-finalist since Patty Schnyder at the Australian Open in 2004—and the first at Roland Garros since Hingis in 2001.

Talking of Hingis, though, having set a series of ‘youngest-ever’ records, then pulling out of tennis in 2002, age just 22, to have surgery on both ankles, she returned in 2006 to reach No6, and retired again. But now, still aged just 34, she has returned again to revive a Grand Slam-winning doubles career that saw her win 10 Major titles in her singles heyday.

She straight away last year reached the US Open doubles final and won Miami, Wuhan, and Moscow, and this year, with new partner Sania Mirza, has won Indian Wells, Miami, Charleston—and now reached the quarter-finals of the French Open. Not just the one Swiss woman quarter-finalist, then!

But of course first to take centre stage—or rather second stage—were the two men. It was only the second time in history that two Swiss men had faced off in the French quarter-finals—and the first time it had also been Federer and Wawrinka, in 2013. In an era so dominated by a superlative clutch of players, it has been some achievement for Switzerland to produce not one but two Grand Slam champions.

Now both in their 30, theirs has also evolved into a special friendship-rivalry.

In the decade since the Swiss Davis Cup colleagues first played one another, in Rotterdam in 2005, the results and the kudos had spent most of their time favouring Federer. Back then, he was already established as long-term No1, was embarking on one of the best seasons ever put together—an 81-4, 11-title year—and Wawrinka was ranked 128.

It would be another four years, in just their third match, before Wawrinka got the better of his fellow Swiss, on the clay of Monte Carlo. He would, though, not beat Federer again until the same tournament last year, winning the final to claim his first Masters title. But by now, Wawrinka had become a different animal, one revitalised by a new self-belief and a new coach, and the rewards had followed his enviable, powerhouse of a single-handed backhand up the rankings.

He reached his first World Tour Finals in 2013, won his first Grand Slam at the start of 2014 in Australia, beating Nadal for the first time in 13 attempts along the way, and passed Federer in the rankings for the first time, reaching No3.

Their next two matches were closely contested, too, even on Federer’s favourite Wimbledon turf. Wawrinka pressed him hard through four sets in the quarters, and at the O2, they produced the match of the tournament. Federer fought off match points to win 7-6(6) in the third set, and they went on to join forces to win the Davis Cup for Switzerland a week later.

In their first meeting this year, on Rome’s clay, Federer caught Wawrinka on the emotional rebound from beating Nadal on the red stuff, and won in straights, but the form of both men in Paris was on the rise.

As Federer pointed out ahead of their big quarter-final: “We know each other very well. Most of the time it’s a physical game, and we know that. Mentally it’s a little bit bizarre to play against one another. We know exactly the zones that we want to hit… But it’s always a pleasure to play against Stan, although it’s not easy.

“[But] there will be a Swiss guy in the semi-final. That’s positive. I hope I will reach the semi-final, I will pull out all the stops… but if I will not make it, I’ll be very happy for Stan.”

And he was true to his word. After a very blustery two hours, it was Wawrinka who powered to his first French Open semi, his second Major semi of the year, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(4), and Federer praised his opponent: “It’s just nice for him now to string it together on a big occasion like this at the French where I always thought he’d have his best chance to do well. The Australian was a surprise for many, but the French people always thought this is where he would get closer to winning.”

Federer would not find a way to break his compatriot once, could not match the volume of winners that Wawrinka made, 43 of them to only 28 errors, and could not make his usual inroads on serve or at the net—just 13 points from 23 volley attempts.

It is possible to look at the conditions, which were not conducive to the touch, spin and variety that colour Federer’s tennis, but instead rewarded the clean, strong, through-the-court striking of Wawrinka, but that would be to deny the late-blooming Swiss his due. And Federer duly gave his opponent the credit he had earned: “Stan made it tough. It’s a combination of many things where it didn’t go well, but mostly it’s because of Stan’s quality of shot making, forehand, backhand, serving big when he had to… When you lose there is always a bunch of things—opponent, the conditions, the court, whatever it is—but it’s the same for both guys.

“In tennis, always one guy has to win and one guy has to lose. One has got the press conference he dreads. Now it’s my turn to explain myself, and sometimes you don’t know what to say.”

So, not for the first time, there will be a Swiss in a Grand Slam semi-final—though perhaps not the expected one. And perhaps by the end of quarter-final play at the 2015 French Open, the same would be true for Bacsinszky in the women’s draw.

But whichever way one measures this Major for Switzerland, there is plenty to write home about.

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