French Open 2018

French Open 2018: Former champs Djokovic and Wawrinka return to the fray, with mixed results

Novak Djokovic is through to the second round of the French Open, by Stan Wawrinka falls at the first hurdle

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic is a former champion at Roland Garros Photo: Marianne Bevis

There are only four active players who have won the magnificent Coupe de Mousquetaires on the equally magnificent Court Philippe Chatrier, and all three that are in this year’s draw would open their campaigns on a sultry Monday in Paris.

Topping the bill, of course, was the man of the moment, the man of the clay season, the man of Roland Garros, Monsieur Rafael Nadal.

As if it was not enough that the king of clay returned to the tour at the start of last year having nursed a wrist injury for several months and promptly won a 10th Monte-Carlo Masters, Barcelona 500 and French Open title, he was No1 in the world and US Open champion by the autumn.

And as if that was not enough, he pulled off the same feat this year: 11 in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, an eighth in Rome, and back in Paris, back at No1, and the favourite to win an 11th here too.

That new record, of course, is a fortnight away: Other milestones for Nadal are much closer. With victory over his lucky-loser opener, Simone Bolelli, he would hit 80 match-wins—for just two losses in his 14th consecutive Roland Garros appearance. And the only time he lost before the fourth round was in 2016—when the teary Spaniard was forced to withdraw with that wrist injury.

Should he win his first match, his tally on clay this year alone would reach 20, with just one loss in the quarters of Madrid. And if he makes it to the second week, he could hit 900 match-wins in total—and an 11th title would cement his place at No1 ahead of the absent Roger Federer.

But while Nadal’s pulling power matches his towering achievements at Roland Garros, arguably it was the other two former champions who commanded more anticipation.

Stan Wawrinka, champion in 2015, was side-lined for the last six months of 2017 by double knee surgery, and had made only modest forays into the tour this season—fewer than a dozen matches—as he worked back to fitness. As a result, he arrived in the tough bottom quarter of the draw ranked No30 in the world having won just a single match in Geneva last week.

Then there was former No1, multiple Major champion and winner at the French Open in 2016, Novak Djokovic. Like Wawrinka, he had endured injury woes for much of last year, and did not play after Wimbledon. He too made early attempts to return in 2018, but resorted to minor elbow surgery and needed more time to regain the confidence and physical endurance than anticipated.

Come the clay, though, he began to build some of his form, some of his intensity, and by the time he faced Nadal in the semis of the Rome Masters, he had beaten Kei Nishikori twice.

Even so, he entered Roland Garros ranked an uncharacteristic 22, but his record in Paris was formidable: He had not fallen short of the quarters since 2009, completed his Grand Slam in 2016, and had reached three more finals on Chatrier. Indeed he trailed only Nadal and Federer for match-wins, 59, ahead of the illustrious clay champion Guillermo Vilas.

And that class came to the fore after a patchy opening that saw the Serb go 2-0 down against No134 Rogerio Dutra Silva in both the first and second sets. But on this familiar stage, he soon turned the match in his favour, and with a consistent and solid performance. Each set took around 40 minutes, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, and the match yielded a nicely balanced tally of winners and unforced errors. And to complete the neatness of the proceedings, this marked his 60th match-win at Roland Garros.

He will next play world No155 Jaume Munar, who beat David Ferrer after four and quarter hours, in a quarter replete with long five-set results, including wins for Fernando Verdasco, Guido Andreozzi, David Goffin, Marco Cecchinato, Roberto Bautistat Agut, and Jared Donaldson.

Which takes us back to Wawrinka in the other bottom quarter, for he too would endure five sets, but on the losing end.

The Swiss conceded an early break, and after facing another break point at 2-4, took a medical timeout for his left knee—worrying signs indeed so early in the match. He was broken again soon after, and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez held to love for the set, 6-2, having made over 20 unforced errors.

But Wawrinka showed no sign of retiring, changed his shirt, and fought off two break points in the first game, 1-0. Perhaps it had been a confidence issue: with reassurance that he had done no serious damage, he was able to play more freely. A few winners appeared on the stats sheet, and he bounced around on the baseline, to signal his intent. Sure enough, that famed backhand began to score, he broke for 3-1, held for 4-1—no sign of any problem.

He faced break points again, but was fired up, roared to the crowd and to himself as he chased down drops, and closed out the set with an ace, 6-3, 34 minutes.

Back in blue for the third, he broke to love, and that was enough for the set, 6-4. The fourth set also brought an early break for Wawrinka, as he stretched out the legs and loosened the hips, but he also conceded a break back, and after two and a half hours, they stood at 5-5 and 122 points apiece.

What Wawrinka may have lacked as he came into Roland Garros was match-fitness, and the stamina that comes with it. A tie-break would test that.

It was nip and tuck, with both men firing their one-handed backhands through the court to great effect. They changed ends at 3-3, and then Garcia Lopez upped the ante with a net charge, 6-4. The Spaniard raised his fist in defiance as he took the set, 7-6(5), after almost three hours of play.

Wawrinka looked hot and tired, while Garcia-Lopez looked fresh as a daisy. He threw up a perfect lob to bring up two break points in the third game, but the Swiss held. He did the same in the fifth game, and this time got the error and break, 3-2.

The Spaniard’s confidence grew as he dragged Wawrinka wide and into the net for another break chance. The Swiss scattered errors, 72 with the last shanked backhand, and Garcia Lopez advanced to the second round, where he will find Karen Khachanov.

For Wawrinka, it was a sterling effort, and certainly something to build on for the rest of the year, but that cannot disguise the scale of his descent in the rankings in the meantime. The man who won here three years ago, made the semis the year after and the final last year, will be outside the top 200. He put on a pragmatic front, however, after assuring the assembled press that his knee was fine.

“There is a lot of positive things, but what dominates mainly is mental tiredness, really. It’s disappointing to lose a match when you’re so close to winning. I know I could win; my physical and mental level is almost there.

“So there’s things I still have to accept, things I haven’t been able to do in practice yet… Today I lose… but at the end of the day, if I look at my level, I’m closer from where I want to be than the ranking.”

Other wins in this bottom quarter include Thiem, Benoit Paire, Ernests Gulbis, Dusan Lajovic, and Stefanos Tsitisipas.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Rio Ferdinand explains why he ‘loves’ Arsenal star
Thiago Silva
Rivaldo admits it’s a ‘joy’ to see Chelsea FC star playing so well
Thomas Tuchel
Shaun Wright-Phillips predicts where Chelsea FC and Man City will finish
Callum Hudson-Odoi
Shaun Wright-Phillips offers advice to Chelsea FC attacker Callum Hudson-Odoi
Paul Merson
Paul Merson makes prediction about Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Rio Ferdinand explains why he ‘loves’ Arsenal star
Thiago Silva
Rivaldo admits it’s a ‘joy’ to see Chelsea FC star playing so well
Thomas Tuchel
Shaun Wright-Phillips predicts where Chelsea FC and Man City will finish
Callum Hudson-Odoi
Shaun Wright-Phillips offers advice to Chelsea FC attacker Callum Hudson-Odoi
Paul Merson
Paul Merson makes prediction about Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature