Wawrinka wins a battle beyond backhands alone

The battlers congratulate and commiserate at the net (Thanks to tennis.sportrightnow.com)

The battlers congratulate and commiserate at the net (Thanks to tennis.sportrightnow.com)

Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet battled for four hours and twelve minutes in the last sixteen of the French Open in a match that went beyond a battle of the backhands alone. This was a match that would be settled by not only their strengths but their weaknesses, too. For while both men are famous for their single handed backhands, they also share infamy. Each man has let slip winning leads in Major matches: Wawrinka against Djokovic in Melbourne this year; Gasquet on four occasions enduring the nightmare of losing matches from a two set lead. Such defeats linger in a player’s psyche as much as their knowing their famed shots can decide matches and, in a match expected to be close, how each man handled the pressure, and fear, of winning would be as much a decisive factor as finding enough angle on a cross-court backhand to open up the court.

With Gasquet being French and with the history of hype he is weighed under, the pressure was greater for him before the match even begun. The paper also piled on the pressure being as he was also the higher seed at seven to his opponent’s nine, an opponent the top eight seeds would have most feared facing in the last sixteen. Wawrinka has been one of the form players of the season and while Gasquet has also enjoyed success, winning two titles, Wawrinka’s play in Melbourne and recent run in Portugal and Rome has been more illustrious and, more importantly, a lot of it on red clay.

The first set was as close as it could be between two such well matched players and the quality was as expected. It was Wawrinka who seemed to be getting the better of the two, holding multiple break points and hitting more winners; but, crucially, on big points and longer rallies, more errors, too. And in the tiebreak Gasquet’s superior defense got the better of the Swiss number two’s attack as the Frenchman got a mini-break and led 6-4. Wawrinka’s saved the first with a forehand cross-court winner but could do nothing about the second. Gasquet won the set with a service winner and then roared and fist pumped like he had not just won a set but the match.

Perhaps Gasquet, knowing that his fitness was inferior to Wawrinka’s, felt that the outcome of the match lay in who would edge a tight first set. He certainly played that way, accomplishing what Wawrinka had failed to do on seven attempts in the first set on his first opportunity, breaking the Swiss at the start of the second set, Wawrinka’s backhand unable to handle the variety of depth and spin of Gasquet’s defense, a defense that broke down his offense. Now, the rhythm all Gasquet’s, the Frenchman was full of confidence, not only defending as he is famous for, but attacking, too, finding the angles on his backhands and moving forward, too, showing off his fine forehand. Breaking again for 4-0, the Frenchman was handling the pressure better than anyone had anticipated.

Wawrinka holds for 4-1 and then calls the trainer. How Gasquet would handle this interruption would be crucial. He handles it well, holding serve. At 5-2, he serves for the set but was broken by an opponent full of confidence and desirous to give as good an account of himself as he can. At 5-4, Gasquet serves for the set again. Wawrinka held more break points. Gasquet serves down the tee and moves forward, drawing an error from Wawrinka. The Swiss errors again on the next point, clumsily sending a volley long. Another set point at a point of the match where Wawrinka is gathering speed. Gasqeut rises to the occasion, serving an ace. He celebrates accordingly. A two sets to love lead in a big match in a Major. A height he has reached before; a height best not looked down if he wishes to climb further.

But it is, of course, not all about Gasquet. Wawrinka wants to climb further, too. And, grabbing the momentum he was building in the latter stages of the second set, he begins his ascent, an ascent he angrily begins to take on as drama unfolds that threaten to overshadow the drama of the match itself. At 2-2, Wawrinka serving, a call comes so late on the serve that the point is already in play and Wawrinka in a winning position. Play stops; Wawrinka erupts. He demands for the line official to be changed. Fuelled by the sloppiness, Wawrinka’s game sharpens. Two service winners, a cross-court forehand winner and the game is his. Wawrinka asks where the new line judge he was promised was, gets some strapping, and then gets on with the business at channeling his anger with the officials, his injury, his-self. It is business he deals with brilliantly, breaking Gasquet at 5-4, a down the line forehand winner sealing him the set.

A match that had looked in the second set to be something of an anti-climax now hit the peaks predicted in pundritry; a twelve minute game at 4-3 Gasquet serving so exquisite that if ever an argument were needed to defend a tennis fan’s love of the game, this game would be given as evidence and the Judge and Jury would collectively overturn the case and start working on their single-handed backhands. It was a game not just decided on that shot alone; a game where every shot in the book was played, a text-book perfect rendition of forehands, volleys, drop shots, single handed backhands, lobs, smashes, flavored with flair and passion and from Gasquet a much welcome show of aggression, none more crucial than the game point he held when he served out wide and then moved forward to clinch the game with a backhand volley winner.

After such a game, the quality might be expected to lessen, but the winners kept coming. At 5-6, Gasquet serving, Wawrinka with a backhand drop shot that Gasquet rescues but hits long. In a set seasoned with points decided on winners and nothing else, it was fitting that Wawrinka, after working his way into the point with his backhand should unleash a forehand down the line winner to level the match at two sets all against an increasingly fatigued looking Frenchman.

By now, Gasquet must have felt not just tired but dizzy. Dizzy with the excitement of playing so aggressively in a big match and dizzy at how his two sets lead had slipped away. Wawrinka, too, must have been giddy. He had been the runner-up in as equally a thrilling contest in Melbourne against Djokovic where he had led by two sets to one only to look down. The crowd were dizzy, too, and had to hold on to the railings as the match went deep into the fifth set. Service games were held with relative ease, the points being kept short more often than not to reserve energy for the business end of the match. And when that came at 5-5, the crowd were on their feet as Gasquet held two break points. The first one Wawrinka saved at the net, turning the rough passing shot fired at him into a silky winning volley; the second one saved for him when Gasquet overhit a forehand. A service winner and a forehand down the line and Wawrinka had survived the first crisis point of the set.

At 6-7, Gasquet serving, it was the Frenchman’s turn to be the fittest. Wawrinka’s winners, of which there were 92 over the course of the match, kept coming, from the drop shot and the forehand down the line. At 15-30, Gasquet who had done so well to not buckle under the pressure at 4-5 and 5-6, now slipped. And it was quite a fall: a shanked backhand from a short ball. 15-40. Wawrinka has two match points and a chance with a second serve. The Swiss takes it with another forehand down the line winner.

The two congratulate and commiserate at the net, patting stomachs and the backs of heads, at the end of this, only their second meeting and first since 2006. How we will wish for more! In a match that went beyond backhands alone, where all that was missing and yet was not missed was a grinding double-handed backhand, tennis fans were given the match they deserve, a match that neither of the battlers deserved to lose; a match where they and tennis won.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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