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Home   News   Tebbutt: Djokovic and the French Open final

Tebbutt: Djokovic and the French Open final

Jun 09, 2015
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt
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Do people really think that Stan Wawrinka would have been able to dominate Novak Djokovic as much as he did in Sunday’s Roland Garros final if Djokovic had been at or near his maximum fitness?

For this humble observer, there was one over-riding question going into the final: would Djokovic having to finish his semifinal with Andy Murray on Saturday, and not having a day off, be a factor?

After watching the match, the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes.

Was Djokovic at only 92 per cent or 96 per cent – it’s impossible to say. But a significant part of Wawrinka hitting so big and controlling so many rallies was attributable to four or eight or whatever per cent was missing from Djokovic’s game.

Is there a tennis player out there who has not had the experience of being tired, ill, injured or short of match play, and losing to an opponent they normally beat who suddenly transforms into a world-beater? Conversely, who hasn’t beaten a better opponent when he or she is vulnerable for some reason and not playing anywhere near their best?

It doesn’t take that much – a couple of feet in depth missing on every shot, a foot less in court coverage because the body isn’t that limber or a little drop in reaction time – for the inferior player to look gangbusters.

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It should be noted here that Wawrinka is a fantastic player, and someone good enough to look that great against Djokovic if the Serb is in some measure not in top form.

Maybe the best example of just how good the Swiss can be was his impressive 7-6(7), 6-2 win over Rafael Nadal in the Rome quarter-finals four weeks ago. In some ways that was a better performance than against Djokovic because Nadal did not appear to have a tangible reason – fatigue, injury etc. – not to be at his best. But Wawrinka beat him – even though there was the unlikely circumstance of the Spaniard not being able to close out the first-set tiebreak after having a 6-2 (four consecutive set points) lead.

The following day, Wawrinka, who subsequently cited an emotional letdown after beating Nadal on clay for the first time, was easy pickings for Federer in the semifinals, going down 6-4, 6-2 after leading 3-0 in the first set.

The level of play of the Djokovic – Murray six games it took to finish the fourth set on Saturday was scintillating, on-the-edge tennis rally after rally, with both players pummeling the ball, and defending, to the max.

Even though Djokovic won the fifth set 6-1, the physical and emotional energy required to finish off the semifinal – with all the same pre-match preparation and post-match wind-down as any normal match – had to have an effect on him. And that’s without mentioning his conquest of the year (the decade?) when he beat mythic nine-time Roland Garros champion Nadal in the quarter-finals.

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Djokovic has always been the most gracious loser of the so-called Big Four, and he showed that again on Sunday. It has been his primary goal the past three years to win Roland Garros and he had to be crushed to fail again. Yet he could not have been more of a gentleman in the post-match encounter at the net with Wawrinka, or in anything else he subsequently said and did afterward.

Here’s a quote from his post-match media conference when he was asked about the effect of the completion of the Murray match being put over until Saturday and forcing him to play three days in a row.

“I don’t want to come up with excuses that these two matches took a lot out of me and I lost today,” Djokovic said. “I don’t think that’s fair to Stan. I don’t think that’s fair to sit here and whine now about what has happened. Certainly those two matches were very big in terms of physical demands and mental emotional as well. Still today I was feeling pretty fresh, as much as I could.

“I mean I was ready to go out and fight and I have done so. Maybe in some important moments I didn’t feel I had that explosivity in my legs. But look, in the end of the day, he was just a better player. There was no reason to find excuses why it didn’t happen.”

As mentioned, Djokovic is an exemplary sportsman, but anyone who can’t read between the lines here that he was indeed diminished…well everybody is entitled to their opinion.

It seems unfair that Djokovic – now three times a runner-up and four times a semifinalist – has not won the French Open. In 2012, he lost in the US Open in five sets to Murray in a similar circumstance – he had to finish a semifinal with David Ferrer on Sunday while Murray had the day off before the Monday match.

Last weekend threatening weather forced postponement of the finish of his semifinal until Saturday, again it was a force majeure that was completely out of his control.

There’s a history of storied champions being jinxed at certain major events. The great Swede Bjorn Borg never won the US Open despite being clearly the best player – in the 1978 final he had developed a blister on his finger and could hardly hold the racquet against Jimmy Connors, and in 1979 he lost in the quarter-finals playing under lights against the huge serve of Roscoe Tanner.

John McEnroe lost the 1984 French Open final to Ivan Lendl after leading 6-3, 6-2 as a result of a few incidents, usually self-induced. Pete Sampras with his Thalassemia Minor anemia condition, when there were suddenly hot, humid conditions for his 1996 semifinal with Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Stefan Edberg – 10 unconverted break point chances in the fourth set while leading Michael Chang two sets to one in the 1989 Roland Garros final – were both unlucky and lost their chance to complete career Grand Slams.

So, it’s happened before. It really seems not right that Djokovic is just 8-8 in Grand Slam event finals – 50 per cent. Federer is 17-8 or 68 per cent, while Nadal is 14-6 or 70 per cent.

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Still, the fact remains that Wawrinka performed brilliantly. He could hardly have played better, even if he was helped by a subpar Djokovic. His nerves held up against the man who is now far and away the best player in the world. He was remarkably clutch when he came back from love-40, triple break point, in the eighth game of the fourth set – hitting a volley winner, a backhand winner and an ace – when the match appeared destined to go five sets.

He also deserves huge kudos for an act of generosity and sympathy after the match. Following a trek into the stands to embrace his family, team and friends, he returned to the court and made the effort to go over to Djokovic, seated in his courtside chair, and offer a few words of comfort and commiseration.

It always strikes this writer that players too often forget that their satisfaction and joy in victory is basically directly proportional to the quality of the opposition coming from the other side of the net. Beating Djokovic in 2015 is as high as the bar is set – in a way Wawrinka was acknowledging that and deserves to be commended.

So…Djokovic continues to be snake-bit at Roland Garros. There’s one irony in the situation. In a few years when there’s a retractable roof on Court Philippe Chatrier (as there are on the Australian Open and Wimbledon main stadiums and will be by 2016 at the US Open), the Djokovic – Murray semifinal would be completed without a stoppage and the rest day between the semifinals and final respected.

But sports are in the here and now, and all about absolutes – a winner and a loser. Going beyond a result to try to examine all the factors involved in it is much more nuanced.

So this has been about the nuances and does not alter the fact that, on the day, Wawrinka was the superior player and deserved to win. But it also doesn’t alter the fact that there is another side to the story.

Serena does it again & again

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Serena Williams won her 20th Grand Slam title on Saturday with a 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-2 victory over Lucie Safarova in the French Open final.

It was a remarkable journey to the championship, with five of her seven victories coming in three sets – and four of them after losing the first set.

Tennis followers are always looking for signs of decline in the 33-year-old Williams, just as they are with Roger Federer who is the same age.

Judging by the ultimate results, Williams is showing no signs of losing any of her dominance, but maybe the slow starts when she displays unusually poor form is an indication of some vulnerability. Still, the way she can utterly outclass her opponents at crunch-time is at once amazing and outrageous.

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Opponents stay with her deep into matches and then she switches into another gear, hits winners all over the place and basically becomes the only player on the court. Anna-Lena Friedsam, Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens, Timea Bacsinszky and Safarova (above) all were neck and neck with Williams until she seemed to re-calibrate and play sublime, one-strike tennis that removed any real competitive balance from the match.

The danger for Williams is that she is playing with fire and eventually won’t be able to extricate herself from these situations. The plus side for her is that her opponents inevitably have a sense of impending doom, no matter what their lead, because they know that she can suddenly turn a match on its end and completely take it over.

Williams, at 33 years and 254 days, is the second-oldest women’s Grand Slam champion in the Open Era, beaten out by nine days by Martina Navratilova who was 33 and 263 days when she won Wimbledon in 1990.

The next challenge for Williams will be to keep alive her calendar year Grand Slam hopes at Wimbledon where, the past two years, she has lost to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round and to Alizé Cornet in the third round.

Genie can’t win for losing

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The fates continue to be unkind to Genie Bouchard. On Tuesday she lost her ninth match in 10, beaten 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 by No. 76-ranked Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan in the first round of ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.

It was incredible that after dropping the first set, Bouchard won five games in a row, lost a game and then won five more games in a row but failed to win the match.

Ahead 4-0 in the third set and love-30 on the Shvedova serve (and eventually three break points in that game), it appeared almost impossible that she could lose. Except that, while she was playing okay but certainly not the dynamic, dominant Bouchard tennis of her best days, Shvedova was way off. Suddenly the Kazakh was way on and things began to slip away for Bouchard.

Shvedova would later reveal that a visit from her coach helped her. She had played in and lost the French Open doubles final on Sunday and had only one day to adapt to the grass. But she has been a good grass court player and pushed Serena Williams to 6-1, 2-6, 7-5 in the round-of-16 at Wimbledon in 2012.

“My coach came and told me to use the match as practice because I was down deep,” Shvedova said. She added with a laugh, “I hope I can practice this way all the way to Wimbledon.”

So, as Bouchard began to tighten up as things began to slip away, Shvedova was loose and letting her shots fly.

Bouchard has had other similar recent losses – i.e. she led Barbora Strycova by a set and 3-1 in Madrid before losing in three – and has not been able to close out.

There was a definite slumping in the last two games – both lost to love – but she was also a little unlucky. On the first point when Shvedova served at 4-all, Bouchard crunched a screamer off the baseline that would have been tough for Shvedova to handle but it was incorrectly called out. The point was replayed and Shvedova hit a serve and crisp backhand winner to take the point.

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Bouchard didn’t call out coach Sam Sumyk during the match for an on-court coaching visit.

After a loss (11-9 in the match tiebreak in doubles on Monday with Lesia Tsurenko), Bouchard has at least had two matches on grass and is now scheduled to play next week in Birmingham and then the following week before Wimbledon in Eastbourne.

She has no points to defend before Wimbledon but then has a massive 1,300 for her runner-up finish a year ago. She currently ranks No. 11 and could drop as far as about the mid-20s after Wimbledon if she doesn’t post some results in the coming weeks.

Remember when?

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In contrast to all the drama and excitement of a packed Court Philippe Chatrier in the last few days of the French Open, there were relaxed afternoons three weeks earlier when players leisurely turned up for the event. Above, with a scattering of people watching in the 14,911-seat arena, Roger Federer (on the right) and Pablo Cuevas practiced with their final destinies at Roland Garros ’15 somewhere far off in the hazy future.

Maria and Rafa

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Looking through files of pictures from Roland Garros, we found this one of the 2014 champions as they were about to get involved in the 2015 draw ceremony. Who knew then that they would only win a total of seven matches between them?

Paris… Paris… Paris…

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This sculpture of Suzanne Lenglen, the legendary 1920s French tennis diva, is located just outside the stadium named in her honour. Most spectators view it straight on but this sideways angle provides an entirely different perspective.