French Open 2019

French Open 2019: A story for the ages, featuring Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer

Stan Wawrinka scores 40th win, Tsitsipas into first Round 3 at Roland Garros

It is a story as old as time: Rafael Nadal will rise like cream to the top when it comes to the climax of the clay season at Roland Garros. He has been here before, his fans have been here before, his opponents have been here before.

Defending champion and No2 seed, Nadal arrived at Roland Garros as a teenager to win his first title in Paris at his first attempt in 2005. He went on to win 11 times, lose only twice in 88 matches, and garner a total of 58 clay titles—the most recent in Rome a week ago.

That he picked up a nice draw—two qualifiers in a row—only made his switch to cruise control all the smoother. He dropped just six games in his first match against Yannick Hanfmann, and facing another Yannick—Maden—he would drop only seven, making 43 winners in the two-hour match.

Yet as is so often the case, he was still not entirely satisfied with his performance:

“I think it was a good match for the first two sets. Not unbelievable, but 6-1, 6-2, with positive feelings. Then in the third, being honest, I think I lost a little bit concentration and intensity. And then all the match became difficult. That’s all…That’s just about concentration, because the feeling on the match had been positive.”

That’s 88-2 then, his 90th match at Roland Garros. However, on paper things do get more challenging in the next round when he faces No27 seed David Goffin. The Belgian beat Miomir Kecmanovic 6-2, 6-4, 6-3, but he trails Nadal in their head to head, 3-1, including all three clay encounters.

So yes, Goffin has been here before, too. However, for whichever man comes through that match, the draw has opened up nicely. There is not another seed until the quarter-finals, with Guido Pella joining Nikoloz Basilashvili in early exits.

Indeed there are precious few seeds remaining in this quarter, though Kei Nishikori put up a sterling fight against both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the entire Philippe Chatrier arena to win in four compelling sets, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, and will next play No31 seed Laslo Djere—the only other pair of seeds.

It was only a matter of time, too, before former champion Stan Wawrinka, seeded 24, got his form back into the top flight, and he is beginning to do so where he has enjoyed so much success. He won the junior Roland Garros title in 2003 and the senior title in 2015, and from there went on to win at the US Open the next year.

He then reached the semis in Australia at the start of 2017, now an established player inside the top five. But double knee surgery that summer took him off the tour for half a year, and he aborted his return for much of 2018.

So his ranking slipped outside the top 200, and his comeback was slow, but this year, he reached the Rotterdam final, his first since reaching the final right here two years ago.

In Round 2, he faced a difficult young opponent in 22-year-old Cristian Garin, up to 37 in the ranks after winning two clay titles from three finals this season. But Wawrinka sailed into the third round, 6-1, 6-4, 6-0 to score the 499th win of his career and his 40th victory at Roland Garros.

Wawrinka afterwards admitted that it was one of his best matches of the year:

“I like the conditions, I know how well I can play here. I know how well I have been practising and pushing myself to play a match like that. I’m happy with today.”

And he went on to talk about how tough it had been to come back from knee surgery:

“I had a lot of pain full time. After the surgery, it took me a little while to get back fit and ready to play like today. It took more than a year… But again, I knew why I was doing it, because I love tennis, I love the game, but especially I love to play. In a court like today with a lot of people in a Grand Slam, that was always my dream to play in the French Open when I was a kid. So when you are in pain, not sure how well you’re gonna be back, you focus on what you wanted when you were a child.”

Another man who reached a high of No3 in 2017 after winning four titles and reaching the semis at the Australian Open is Grigor Dimitrov, and his form also took a dive in 2018, helped not a little by a shoulder injury, such that he arrived in Paris unseeded.

Roland Garros has never been a happy hunting ground for the Bulgarian—never beyond Round 3—and his task was all the harder this year as he hit No11 seed Marin Cilic in the second round.

Dimitrov came close to losing to Janko Tipsaravic in his opener, taking a two-set lead, but ultimately requiring a fifth set. And he would then take almost four and a half hours to come through an epic contest with Cilic, hitting 60 winners, and ending the match, 6-7(3), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-3, with just two more points than Cilic in more than 350 played.

He said afterwards:

“Every win that I have now, I appreciate it. I don’t really think of who I’m playing against. I just want to have those wins… It was a very, very important match to me, without a doubt. Clearly I have struggled the past two, three months. The shoulder hasn’t been great… I feel great, and I’m very focused and excited for what’s ahead.”

What is immediately ahead is Wawrinka, in a glut of single-handed backhands: Wawrinka owns perhaps the most powerful pile-driver backhand on the tour, Dimitrov one of the most extreme actions—little wonder he has developed shoulder problems.

The two are in the same segment as No6 seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, the latest and perhaps most flamboyant standard-bearer for the one-handed backhand.

Just 18 months ago, the 20-year-old was barely inside the top 100, but grew in game and stature at a rate of knots, and has now reached two Masters finals, won three titles, and reached the semis in Australia. But he was thoroughly tested by Bolivian Hugo Dellien, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5, until his all-court power kicked in, he cranked up 42 winners, and won 33 out of 55 net points.

But all this talk of single-handed backhands brings to the fore Roger Federer, who has returned to Roland Garros for the first time in four years. During that absence, he has had knee surgery, won three more Majors—upping his tally to 20—and reclaimed the No1 ranking.

Now back at No3, the Swiss star is heading towards his 38th birthday, and played for the first time at Roland Garros 20 years ago. He has not lost before the third round since 2003—and he would not do so this year either.

The 2009 champion, who has racked up a 66-16 record on Paris’s clay, swept through lucky loser Oscar Otte, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, much as he had beaten Lorenzo Sonego in his opener. Both challengers opened fast and strong, going for their shots, trying to break the Federer rhythm, but the Swiss is the master of such tactics. He hit 35 winners, won 23 points at the net, threw in drop-shots and sliced squash-style forehands, and served at 76 percent—always a dangerous sign for opponents.

The highlight was perhaps his chase to the net for a difficult volley, followed by a chase-back to retrieve a lob, on the stretch, facing away from the court, and recovering to hit a forehand. Otte was bamboozled, found the net, and the rally became the stuff of Twitter replays.

Chatrier stood in ovation, then began the chant, “Roger, Roger…” mid-game. It is, just as for Nadal, a story as old as time.

And time has become a recurrent theme around Federer’s return here. When not being asked about his retirement plans, or whether his return to Roland Garros after four years will be his valedictory appearance, he is quizzed about the age of his opponents.

His next will be 20-year-old Casper Ruud in a first meeting. But for Federer, the name Ruud is a familiar one. Between 1999 and 2001, Federer and Ruud’s father were both in the French Open draw. The two never played one another, but Federer recalled the family connection:

“I know probably more about his dad than about [Casper]. Even though I never played the father. I know that [Casper’s] improved a lot in recent years, and I think he plays very well on the clay… For any 20-year-old to be on the big stage, playing a top guy, on a centre court, that’s what you dream of, at least I did… And you have to believe that you have a chance. If you get to a third round of a slam, it’s not by luck. Today, by the score line against [Matteo] Berrettini, seems like he did his work—I will take him very seriously.”

Will age play a part in this one? Time will tell.

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