Novak Djokovic might have improved his head to head against Rafa to 30-28 overall, 2-7 at the Roland Garros, 8-19 on clay and 7-10 in Grand Slams. Rafa might have been denied another free run at the Roland Garros where his 14th title would have allowed him to steer free of Federer’s count of 20 Slams. The Spaniard might have been handed only his third loss in the French Open in 108 matches. Novak might have retained his Number One ranking for now. A lot might have been tickmarked, but not everything has yet been taken care of. Coupe des Mosquetaires is not yet in the Serb’s bag, and Stefanos Tsitsipas still stands unvanquished. Djokovic might feel he has scaled the Everest, Stefanos might feel emotionally overwhelmed and physically drained after winning the see-saw battle against Sascha and entering his first Slam final, but the final of the French Open 2021 is yet to be played.
Hence, hold your horses. Tighten your guts.
One more match to go.
The euphoria of the semi-final win is now beginning to fade (oh, what a match!), and demons of 2015 have returned to haunt. The French Crown then lay in La Terra Battue after Novak Djokovic had finally vanquished Nadal in the Quarters after losing two finals, 3 SF and a QF to the Mallorcan in nine years between 2006 and 2014. The Serb then overcame Andy Murray’s spirited challenge in five sets to enter the title round for the third time. Here was Novak’s chance to bask in the Parisian sun. He was unbeaten in last 27 Tour matches. Djokovic expectedly won the first set in the final by 6-4.
But then arose Stanislas Wawrinka with his sledgehammer-like single-handed backhands, and ironsmithesque determination to forge his own history, and stopped the Djuggernaut in its tracks.
Stan attacked Nole’s serve very resolutely in the second set, and finally broke him on his fifth break point to claim the set by 6-4. In the third, Nole’s serve was destroyed by Wawrinka. The Serb barely held to make it 1-1, then went ‘drop shot crazy’ as he began tiring(the gruelling five set semifinal against Andy had begun taking its toll). The Swiss-not-named-Roger soon broke, and held firm to win the set 6-3.
In the 4th set, Novak took an early 3-0 lead, but soon lost the advantage. At 3-3, he saved two Break Points by magnificent volleying, and then had three 3 break points at 4-3. A confident volley, a kitchen-sink backhand and a decisive forehand saved Stan by hair’s breadth. Djokovic surrendered tamely in his next service game, but then had a break point at 4-5, when his inside-out forehand went wide. A solid first serve, and a searing backhand later, Wawrinka had won the French Open and dashed the Serb’s dreams.
In that final, Wawrinka opened up Djokovic’s defences with his aggressive powerplay. He ended up hitting 59 winners to Nole’s 30, while making 45 unforced errors to his opponent’s 41. He hit nine aces to Nole’s six, but also served three double faults to Djokovic’s none. Stan went all guns blazing at key moments, and managed to somehow breach the Serb’s fortifications. But it is not as though Stanislas Wawrinka was a question that had appeared from out of syllabus for the World Number One. In fact, he was a looming one!
The duo’s previous four Grand Slam matches had been five set epics – Djokovic had prevailed in AO-R4 and USO-SF in 2013, but lost to the Swiss in AO-QF in 2014, which the latter had gone on to win by defeating Rafa. In the AO-2015, Djoker again prevailed over Stan in their SF match-up. Given their interesting Slam history, and the current form in which the eight seed Wawrinka was- he had beaten Federer in the QF, and Tsonga in the semis – a contest was always on cards.
The same can be said of the Greek sensation, Stefano Tsitsipas- that he has also not turned out of syllabus, and is rather a looming question for our Serbian champ.
Although the Serb leads their H2H by 5-2, and has prevailed in their four previous encounters (Paris, Dubai, Roland Garros and Rome), yet the World Number 5 has been catching up progressively on him. That there is a 12 year gap between their respective ages must also count for something. In their only encounter in a major (FO SF-2020), Stef had stretched Nole to five sets, after capitulating in the first two rather tamely. That long battle had ensured that Novak was not in the best of shape when he took on Nadal in the final. In their last encounter which was played at Foro Italico in May 2021, Tsitsipas was a set and a break up , when rain interrupted play. The following day, the Serbian Magician performed the great Houdini trick to bamboozle the Greek and entered the SF.
Tsitsipas has played high intensity matches against Isner, Busta, red-hot Meddy Bear and Sascha Zverev in last four rounds. But things could have been a bit harder for him and everyone in the upper half of the draw had the organizers been more respectful of Rafael Nadal’s stature and awarded him the second seed, instead of the third. Tsitsipas has recorded 39 wins in this season and leads the Number One race to Turin WTF. 22 of these wins have come on clay. He played a nail-baiting final at Barcelona versus Rafa (which Stef lost), won his first Masters at Monte Carlo, has reached his third successive Slam SF (FO 2020, AO 2021), and his first ever Slam final.
While Novak and Rafa spent 4h13min on Chatier to finish their 4-set classic, Stef and Sascha wrapped their five set business in merely 3h36min. Novak would do well to keep his wide-angled serves on target, and should aim to exploit Tsitsipas’ comparatively weaker single-handed backhand. Stef is good at net play, but then if Novak showed the temerity to tease Rafa (even after FO-2020 fiasco),then he shall certainly try his cheeky drop shots with the Greek as well. This is where it might get interesting. Stefanos must be prepared to run back and forth.
This is the Olympic year. Nole has won the AO and sits on 18 Slam while Fe-dal are on 20 each. With Maximum Weeks as Number One, head-to-head records, and Masters already looking good, another win at Ronald Garros- his second, if it arrives, shall complete his second Career Slam, that is, he shall achieve the distinction of winning every Grand Slam at least two times in his career. That would be going one better on both Roger and Rafa.
But beware of a young player who has entered his first Grand Slam final, and stands nothing to lose by going fully aggressive against the Greatest of ALL Times. Desist from counting your Slams until they have been actually won.
NOTE – It would be sobering to recall a great R4 match played between Stan and Stef at the Roland Garros in 2019, which the Swiss had won 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6. That match had just come after Tsitsipas had reached the Madrid final where he had lost to who else but Novak Djokovic. That clay season had left the world convinced that Stef is an all-courter and would definitely be Numero Uno some day.
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