French Open 2016: Modest Stan Wawrinka hoping to be The Man again in Paris

Stan Wawrinka is preparing to open the defence of his French Open title in Paris

stan wawrinka
Stan Wawrinka is the defending champion in Paris Photo: FFT

There are worse reasons for a defending champion to arrive late to the site of one of his most celebrated victories than the one offered by the French Open’s 2015 champion, Stan Wawrinka.

Late yesterday, ‘Stan the Man’ won his third title of the year, his first clay title of 2016, on his home soil in Geneva.

It was a testing match, too, against one of the few other Grand Slam champions not counted among ‘the big four’, Marin Cilic, though in all fairness Wawrinka, with two Majors to his name and seeded No4 for the defence of his French title, may feel a little aggrieved that this catch-all has not been revised to ‘the famous five’.

Wawrinka has, after all, broken through the Masters glass ceiling to claim the Monte-Carlo title among three finals at that elite level. He last year put together his best Grand Slam season—a quarter-final at Wimbledon, two semis and the title in Paris—and he has reached the semis at the World Tour Finals for the last three years. And few would deny his big role in the Swiss Davis Cup victory in 2014, nor in winning doubles gold at the 2008 Olympics.

Since he rose to No3 at the start of 2014, he has spent just 20 weeks outside the top four, too. So yes, it is probably fair to say that he has earned his place among the big boys. That he did so as he transitioned from 29 to 30, and with a game as big and flamboyant as any on the tour—though infamously unpredictable in its brilliance—makes his presence among the top tier all the more welcome.

And there are few who have not responded to the determination writ large on his forearm: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Until 2013, titles had been thin on the ground—four of them—and he had made just one Grand Slam quarter-final in 22 starts. But he knew there was more, he joined up with Magnus Norman in what must be one of the most successful coaching partnership in tennis, and tried again—until he did not fail.

He beat Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on his way to the Australian title in 2014, beat Roger Federer in the Monte-Carlo final, then Federer and Djokovic to win at Roland Garros last year. No wonder his memory of what he achieved in Paris has remained especially vivid, as he told Roland Garros magazine.

“I think it’s the best match I’ve ever played. And to achieve that in a Grand Slam final, at Roland Garros against the world No1 was—a surprise. The level of play that I managed to come up with, the concentration, mentally, physically, not to let Novak run a way with it, it was a dream final. I’ve never managed anything like it at that level.”

Friend Federer is not here this year, missing the action due to back problems, but the other members of ‘the big four’ are. Alongside Djokovic and Nadal is world No2 Andy Murray, and Wawrinka has not lost to the Briton in their three matches since 2013. This year, though, the Briton arrives here in peak clay form: He reached the Madrid final and followed it with the Rome title, enjoying wins over Djokovic and Nadal to boot.

Who, then, does Wawrinka see as the biggest danger to his title defence? Well despite his status amid the top five, he continues to see himself behind them.

“When I look at myself, I say no, I’m not at the same level but who knows? I’d say that Novak is the main favourite. It was the case last year, as well. I think to beat him, it’s going to be very difficult, and then there is Murray and Nadal on an equal footing, and then I’m just after them. Just after.

“But it all depends. I’ll see what I can do during the first week, but I’ll try. I’ll have to do my best so that I’m still here in a few days from now.”

So will the impact of winning in Geneva be a boost after his average run through the clay Masters, or might it undermine his physical readiness for tomorrow’s start?

“I’m happy to have won yesterday. It was important tournament for me. Took some big confidence by winning the trophy there and arriving here. For sure it’s late arriving for a Grand Slam, but I think I’m feeling good. I’m feeling fit. My tennis is there, and I’m ready to play my first match.”

That first match is against the dangerous Lukas Rosol. Wawrinka has beaten the Czech in all three meetings, most recently in Australia this year, but the matches have been tough ones. The Swiss admitted: “He’s a dangerous player. He’s serving big. He’s going for his shots. You never know what to expect, really. You need to be really solid and stay there. It is all going to [depend] how I’m going to feel tomorrow, if I play well enough to beat him.”

Beyond Rosol there are plenty more tripwires, the likes of the resilient Gilles Simon, followed by either Milos Raonic or Cilic. But the semis promise Murray, and that could be cracker.

If Wawrinka makes it beyond Murray—and the rest—into another final, it is more than likely to be Djokovic or Nadal who again stands in his way. Wawrinka even so sounded optimistic—by his standards at least.

“I’m confident enough. I know I can do something here, that’s for sure. And apart from that, well, you know what really matters is my first match. It’s always the same… it’s each match that you have to win. I can go deep. I know that.”

And it is worth remembering just how much this title, at the tournament where he also won the junior title 13 years ago, means to him, coming as it did relatively late in his career. He told Roland Garros magazine: “I think everything that I’ve done since 2013, everything I’ve achieved, all the confidence I’ve acquired little by little, wins over top players… all that led to my win at the French Open.

“The trophy ceremony and the moment where I am handed the cup… It was one of the most emotional things, if not the most emotional thing, that I have experienced in tennis.”

Wawrinka opens the defence of his title on Monday at 11am—weather permitting.

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