Some of the greatest moments of sports come down to a precise second. Invariably, this is the second an underdog—against all odds, against logic and history—triumphs over the overwhelming favorite, the odds-on winner, the crowd favourite and the best in the world. This is not to say that the best are sore losers or just evil people. It’s just that they become the villain, in an untraditional sense of the word, the player who stands in between a fairytale and its happy ending.
Novak Djokovicbecame that player on Sunday. It was probably the last place on Earth he’d want to be that player at, but he took it with the grace and dignity of a champion. Djokovic, who broke down in tears during the trophy ceremony, must have felt how close he was to his destiny. He has been the best male tennis player on the planet for almost three years now, over all surfaces, and he still has no French Open title to show for it. It must have hurt more that he had to overcome the King himself, Rafa Nadal, at Paris, before defeating in-form Murray in 5 sets. You’d take a final for granted after beating two great players, but Djokovic couldn’t have seen Wawrinka’s ambush coming. Nobody saw it coming.
Stan Wawrinka, who is known as the Swiss no. 2 and is perhaps destined to remain so, proved that his Australian Open Final win in 2014 over Nadal wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t only because Nadal was injured. It was only because Wawrinka, the player with possibly the best single-handed backhand of all time, did what Del Potro managed to do in the 2009 US Open final against Federer. Wawrinka has now beaten the first and second ranked players in the world twice on his way to two Grand Slam titles—a feat deemed unthinkable a year ago, especially for the ‘best of the rest’, who’d always have to sit on the sidelines and watch the ‘big 4’ battle it out in the final stages of every Slam. Then Wawrinka won at Melbourne, before Cilic and Nishikori shocked the world in New York. 2014 was a game-changer, and the man that changed it, now 30 years of age, is back to keep the game interesting.
After losing the first set to some superb pressure-soaking by Djokovic, Wawrinka kept going for the lines. He kept at his high-risk game, and made the errors when they didn’t matter much. He squeezed out the second set, before taking complete charge in the third. He reached a stage where he began to dictate play—his basic plan—against a guy who always made him play the two extra shots to earn that winner. It was only about whether Wawrinka could keep up his level in the crunch moments, not about whether Djokovic could conjure up a magical session of winners. Wawrinka’s final tally of 60 winners to Novak’s 30 tells a story.
When Stan Wawrinka, now the World no. 4 again, smashed his final backhand winner down the line, the crowd stood up to applaud them. It wasn’t so much a miracle by the end of the match, where Stan had clearly been the better player. Their spirit and standard of play, especially for a pulsating final, was applauded and appreciated by the French crowd—who have finally seen a new Champion, only the second in the last 11 editions. Remarkably, the only two non-Nadals to have won this have been Swiss players: Federer in 2009 and Wawrinka in 2015.
The Swiss no. 2 defeated Federer, Tsonga and Djokovic in his final 3 matches. Djokovic defeated Nadal and Murray, but just couldn’t get over the line in the final. One thinks those two extra sets against Murray, which spilled over into Saturday, would have cost him physically. But this isn’t the first time Djokovic has been required to defy the schedule. His 2012 Aussie Open win was a miracle of human endurance and a lesson in modern-day fitness for athletes.
Djokovic remains on 8 Slams, and has reached 16 finals. This 50% win record will worry him, considering this was supposed to be his year again. One wonders how he will motivate himself to defend his Wimbledon title now. If he wins it, the French Open loss will hurt even more—because it’s an empty space in the cabinet that even Federer had to deal with for a very long time.