French Open champion Stan Wawrinka, buoyant from surging victories over Roger Federer and Djokovic in Paris, professes to find the grass his toughest surface, and with a Major on each of hard and clay courts in the last 18 months—and a second-round loss at his only warm-up event at Queen’s—he may be right.
But Wawrinka’s power game, his remarkably flexible and varied backhand, and his big serving suggest grass can’t be far behind. And the signs were there last year with his first quarter-final run at Wimbledon.
For the transformation of the 30-year-old Wawrinka from the unassuming Australian champion of 2014 continues apace. Still quietly spoken, he nevertheless now has the tone and body language of a man becoming entirely at ease with his status, his fame and, it has to be added, his popularity.
His practices are noticeably more packed when he takes to court than in years past, and the gasps of approval when he plays are testament to his remarkable brand of attacking, full-blooded tennis, tempered as it is with angles, touch and not a little net play as the occasion demands.
Yet the burgeoning Wawrinka is no newcomer: He has played every Major since 2005, making this his 42nd consecutive Grand Slam. And the man he played was no novice, either. The 31-year-old Fernando Verdasco has also been a quarter-finalist here, leading Andy Murray before he lost in five sets in 2013. And this would be his 13th straight Wimbledon, his 49th consecutive Grand Slam—a run outlasted by only Federer and Feliciano Lopez.
He has also been a former top-10 player, back in 2009 when he reached the semis of the Australian Open, losing a compelling five-setter to Nadal. But his talent, though great, has been inconsistent, undermined by losses of focus and confidence.
He came to this match ranked 43, and had already won two five-set battles, the first 13-11 in the fifth and the second over No32 seed Dominic Thiem from two sets to one down. He had, though, beaten Wawrinka in two of three previous meetings, though they pre-dated the renaissance of Wawrinka into a Grand Slam champion.
Verdasco’s big left-handed game certainly had the potential to disrupt Wawrinka, for the Spaniard’s main weapon, his flat deep forehand, countered Wawrinka’s famed backhand, and especially down the line. But did Verdasco have the stamina for his biggest test so far, and did he have the self-belief?
It certainly looked as though this would be as close a tussle as their histories promised. It did not take long for Wawrinka to unleash his first backhand, and for Verdasco to show off his forehand—both received with gasps from the Court 1 crowd.
They stayed on level peggings in both score and the speed of their serves, too: at 4-4, each had hit aces at 133mph, but that slight vulnerability of Verdasco was already showing, tension under pressure, as a few double faults began to litter his games. As he served to save the first set, he faced two break points and on the second, double faulted to give up the set, 6-4, in 33 minutes.
The difference was writ large when Wawrinka faced his own break point at the start of the second set. After a six-minute battle, he held, and to Verdasco’s credit, he did the same, holding from 15-40 down.
But come the business end of the set, again Verdasco came under pressure and buckled. Twice he double faulted to bring up break points and on the second, hit a forehand wide. Wawrinka served it out, 6-3.
Verdasco seemed to garner some confidence from serving first in the third, and withstood a 0-40 opening to hold. He then went after Wawrinka with his most aggressive play thus far, chasing to the net to earn two break points. But the Swiss held, as he would against all four break points he faced in the match.
Verdasco survived 0-40 again serving at 3-3: It felt that he was on the verge of making a breakthrough, but still Wawrinka was too solid and aggressive.
At the key moment, once again, the Swiss went on the attack and had break points. Verdasco aced to hold with the fastest serve of the day, 134, but a 12th double fault offered one more fatal break chance and Wawrinka made no mistake. Just six minutes short of two hours, the Swiss served out 6-4 to set up a fourth-round meeting with No16 seed David Goffin.
Wawrinka looked entirely comfortable on his least successful surface, and he admitted that his confidence here was growing each year.
“Playing better and better, serving really well since the beginning of the tournament, being really aggressive… I think since few years now, I feel really, really good on the grass. I still think I can play my best game.
“Last year I played a really good, good tournament, being in quarter. So far it’s been great. I can see that I’m there in second week playing good, not playing my best tennis, but playing good and still there.”
It’s been a rare player who has won the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back—only the likes of tennis greats Federer, Nadal, Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg in the Open era. Wawrinka could just be the fifth.
At precisely the moment Wawrinka was serving out his match on Court 1, a fellow one-hander was doing the same on Centre Court, and it was the 29-year-old Gasquet, who lost in the second round last year to Kyrgios and reached his only semi here back in 2007, who came through.
His opponent Dimitrov, the higher seed and a semi-finalist last year, has lost to Gasquet on all four previous occasions, but this was their first on grass.
It took Gasquet just three minutes more than Wawrinka, in a convincing 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 scoreline, to set up a rematch with Kyrgios in the fourth round, who was finishing his own win just minutes later.
The 20-year-old Australian No27 seed avenged his four-set loss to No7 seed Milos Raonic here last year, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(3) 6-3. Raonic went all the way to the semis here last year: Kyrgios, who hit 34 aces today, will have to get past Gasquet and then possibly Wawrinka, to do the same.
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