French Open 2019: Roger Federer avenges 2015 loss to Stan Wawrinka with 70th Paris win
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal set 39th showdown, and first at Roland Garros since 2011
Perhaps someone in the French Open scheduling office had a wicked sense of humour. For it surprised many that the quarter-final contest between Swiss rivals and friends No3 seed Roger Federer and No24 seed Stan Wawrinka was placed on Suzanne Lenglen.
For it was exactly four years ago, at precisely this stage of the tournament, that the two men met on that very same court. And it was a match that brought the best of the younger Swiss to court as he pounded his way on to his first Roland Garros title, beating Novak Djokovic in the final.
Both men went on to have knee surgery, Federer in 2016 and Wawrinka in 2017, and missed long periods on the tour, and slipped in the ranks, Federer to 17 by the start of 2017, Wawrinka outside the top 200 by the middle of last year.
Indeed Federer had gone on to bypass the French Open ever since, did not play on clay at all after attempting two tournaments in 2016, and that meant his loss to Wawrinka in their quarter-final was his last match in Paris, a 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(4) trouncing in around two hours.
Federer recalled the occasion vividly in the aftermath of Wawrinka’s remarkable five-hour, five-set win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the fourth round.
“We know each other very well, we have played a ton of matches against each other. Also on clay, this is when it’s been most tough for me against him. If I think back at Monaco finals, French Open here in 2015 and then he also beat me in Monaco another time. So on clay it’s been definitely more dangerous.”
Those were, in fact, the only victories Wawrinka had enjoyed over Federer, in 25 previous meetings, but Federer added, with a wry smile:
“I hope he’s not at the level of 2015, but we’ll find out, because there, he was crushing the ball. It was unbelievable.”
He was not wrong. And Wawrinka was forced to smile at Federer’s recollection:
“I’m happy [Roger] said that for once in his life. I think I crushed the tournament that year—so I’m happy with that memory. But as I say, it didn’t happen many times in my life against him. Normally it’s always the opposite… We’ll see in two days.” And he smiled again.
For make no mistake. The tennis he produced in beating Tsitsipas, and before that Grigor Dimitrov, was as close to the full-blooded, aggressive, gasp-inducing ball-striking that won him three Majors as anything he has produced since his surgery.
Not that Federer’s form this year had been poor. He won his 100th title in Dubai, went on to reach the final at Indian Wells and win the Miami Masters. For his first matches on clay in three years, he picked up the thread pretty quickly, two quarter-finals in Madrid and Rome. He had a straightforward draw in Paris, too, all the more so when the other three seeds in his eighth lost before he collided with them. He reached the quarters without dropping a set.
That would change against Wawrinka, though the early stages suggested that Federer’s serving, and repeated chances to break, would stand the 37-year-old in good stead. Time and again, Federer served to love, and three times Wawrinka fended off break points as they headed to a tie-break.
That too would be a tight affair, Federer edging the first advantage, Wawrinka levelling at 4-4, but Federer then serving it out, 7-6(4).
But Wawrinka was just beginning to feel the ball, feel the court, and finding his rhythm on serve and on his formidable pile-driver of a backhand. He punished Federer wide to the backhand wing and drove his forehand down the line, time and again slotting a backhand pass by his man at the net. He broke in the third game, and Federer could not recover before Wawrinka served it out, 6-4.
It was Wawrinka who stole a march in the third set, too, riding his momentum to get the first break, 4-3. But Federer was losing nothing of his energy and speed: Could he ride out the Wawrinka storm? He did, and broke back immediately. He then had break point for the set, 5-4, but Wawrinka stayed tough, and served to take it to another tie-break.
This time, Federer took a quick lead, 5-1, edged it to 6-3, and after Wawrinka took it to 6-5, served out the set, 7-6(5)
The match was two and three-quarter hours old, and could still have gone either way. Federer passed up break points in the first couple of games—he would convert only two out of 18 in the match—and they stayed locked at 3-3 as heavy black clouds swept across the Roland Garros site.
Sure enough, the promised storms arrived, and the players were swept off court before the weather swept them off. Lightning flashed, and the rain and wind hit with a vengeance, but fortunately, the break would last barely an hour. And every ticket-holder was back in place to see how this intense contest would resolve.
In the event, it would not last long. Poised at 4-4, Wawrinka threw in a couple of errors on serve, and Federer punished him with a forehand winner for the break.
Now it was Federer’s turn to tighten with nerves. He could not find a first serve, missed out on his first match-point, and then faced a break point courtesy of a Wawrinka forehand down the line. However, Federer remained bold, continued his attack, saved it with a serve and volley on second serve.
It was still not over: Federer double faulted on his next match point, again serve and volleyed, and finally closed it out with his 41st net winner after three hours and 35 minutes, 6-4—his 70th match-win at Roland Garros.
But if that was a battle and a half for the man who turns 38 two months’ time, the best is yet to come—in the shape of Rafael Nadal, the 11-time champion who has lost only two matches in 93 played in Paris, for the remarkable Spaniard cruised through No7 seed Kei Nishikori, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3.
What is more, Nadal took almost the same time to complete his first two sets as Federer and Wawrinka had taken to play just their third.
It did not bode well for the Swiss in this most compelling of rivalries, for Nadal leads their head-to-had 23-15, and leads it on clay 13-2, including all four of their Roland Garros meetings—four finals and the semis.
They have not played on clay since 2013, in the Rome final, and have not met in Paris since the 2011 final. And yet there is still some hope for the Swiss. He has won their last five matches dating back to Basel 2015, including the Australian Open final in 2017. And he remained optimistic about the challenge.
“Like against any player, there is always a chance…You just don’t know. That’s why you need to put yourself in that position. For me to get to Rafa is not simple. It took five matches here for me to get there. That’s why I’m very happy to play Rafa, because if you want to achieve something on the clay, inevitably, at some stage, you will go through Rafa, because he’s that strong and he will be there.
“I knew that when I signed up for the clay that hopefully that’s gonna happen. If I would have had a different mindset to avoid him, then I should not have played the clay.”
“Having Roger in front in the semi-finals is an extra thing. We shared the most important moments of our careers together on court facing each other. So is another episode of this, and happy for that and excited, no? Will be special moment: and let’s try to be ready for it.”
Both have extended numerous records already during the French championships, the latest for Nadal being his 12th Roland Garros semi-final, and for Federer, his 44th Major semi-final.
But such statistics fade into the background when these two face off on a tennis court. Friday will be a red-letter day.