Wawrinka pierces Murray’s armour to reach French Open final

Swiss star twice comes from a set down to avenge last year’s semi-final defeat

Stan Wawrinka  celebrates victory over Andy Murray in the semi-finals of the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Stan Wawrinka celebrates victory over Andy Murray in the semi-finals of the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

Stan Wawrinka, 32, became the oldest man to reach the French Open final since Niki Pilic was runner-up 44 years ago when he outlasted Andy Murray over five of the best sets of the 2017 tournament here on Friday evening.

The second half of the struggle provided Court Philippe Chatrier with a level of excellence and intensity that was a credit to both of them, but it was the Swiss whose smile illuminated Roland Garros after prevailing 6-7 (8-6), 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (7-3), 6-1 over four-and-half hours.

“With this sort of atmosphere, this sort of crowd, it was amazing to play in this match,” Wawrinka said courtside. “I know I dominated him even though I was down two sets to one. But Andy is always there, does strange things with drop shots, and makes it very difficult for you.

“It’s incredible to be back to the finals here again. I’m just going to try my best. After this, I want to celebrate and then I want to recover for Sunday. I think I’ll have another chance to win.”

Some of Wawrinka’s groundstrokes were reminiscent of those that destroyed Novak Djokovic in the final two years ago. He hit his forehand as hard as the young Russian Karen Khachanov, who lost to Murray in three sets earlier in the week, and his single-handed backhand was lethal, as ever. But those shots came at a price, errors invading some of his more ambitious work as the match went on.

One set of statistics told the story: Wawrinka risked everything on so many occasions he hit 87 winners and 77 unforced errors. Murray’s numbers were 36 apiece. Did he pay the price for caution? Not really. At the end, there was nothing he could do against a player at the very peak of his powers.

Ominously, he found his 2015 form again, after an indifferent season, dropping just 54 games to reach the semi-finals, the same as then. He started the match with a 110mph swinging ace, and held to love inside a minute. Early impressions were that this might not be a re-run of last year’s semi, when Murray won stylishly in four sets.

The world No 1, whose average forehand speed here has been 73mph, three miles an hour slower than the women’s finalist, Jelena Ostapenko, was never going to win a slugging match with the Swiss (81 mph), so he went for subtlety. Murray drop-shotted for his first break point in the third game, but Wawrinka held, hitting hard and flat to pin the Scot deep.

Wawrinka squandered his first chance to break, in the eighth game after Murray’s first double-fault. In the longest rally to that point, he fashioned another, and this time passed his opponent at the net with a superb forehand.

With the first set almost his, Wawrinka hit long and they were back on serve after 41 minutes. On the hour, they were into the tie-break, the fifth for each of them in this tournament. Murray prevailed in a tense struggle.

Murray owed his lead, in part, to Wawrinka’s profligacy but the Swiss tightened up his stroke-making in the second. After struggling for nine minutes to hold in the fifth game, Murray cracked under pressure in the seventh, double-faulted and was broken to love by some frighteningly fierce hitting. Wawrinka took the set after just under two hours and the weight of the fortnight’s efforts looked to be weighing on Murray.

The challenge for Murray in the third set – his 21st of the championships – was finding the energy to hold Wawrinka at bay. Regarded as the strongest man on tour, he had spent three fewer hours on court getting this far.

Murray also had to shake off the effects of a heavy cold before a ball was hit.

As John McEnroe, one of the game’s most committed players in his day but no stranger to a loss of focus, remarked: “How deep are you willing to dig? How bad are you willing to feel?” Murray put a weary forehand long and, after giving up seven games in a row, he was 0-2 down in the third.

Serial errors, some dazzling winners and occasional poor judgment by both brought three breaks in a row before Murray interrupted the slump to hold for 4-all after two hours and 44 minutes – a minute longer than Wawrinka had spent on court in any of his previous five matches. Now, remarkably, the Swiss player’s legs went to jelly; his feet got stuck on a return in the 11th game, he couldn’t handle a sharp backhand down the line and Murray served out for a 2-1 lead as they neared the end of the third hour.

The unanswered question after three sets was this: was this going to turn into a memorable five-set fight, or would Murray scrape over the line in four? At 3-all in the frame, each of them had won exactly the same number of points: 129. It was impossible to call.

The tenacity with which Wawrinka hung on to his lead in the serving cycle was something to behold, and Murray had to play at the limits of his ability and stamina to stay with him for 5-all. The patrons were treated to one staggeringly good rally after another as, energised by the nearness of the prize, they fought tigerishly for every point, fist-pumped every success. The quality had risen in direct proportion to their drained energy levels, which defies all logic. This was animal tennis.

They went to a second tie-break, where Wawrinka held a 4-3 career lead, although he had the memory of having lost the most recent one, in the first set. He was the crowd’s favourite; they remembered his crazy pyjama shorts when he won the title, and they love a fighter – not that Murray does not bring pugnacity. Nevertheless, Wawrinka crossed 4-2 up, with ball in hand.

As the clock ticked past four hours, Wawrinka was a point from levelling. He did it as emphatically as he could: scorching Murray’s second serve down the line with his muscled forehand. We would not be forgetting this encounter in years to come.

Wawrinka broke Murray for the sixth time at the start of the fifth. His natural strength now was a growing factor in the fight. His eyes blazed. He bounced on his feet between points. Murray sucked at the warm, early evening air, glancing occasionally towards his box. A tired Murray forehand put him 0-3 down after less than a quarter of an hour. The previous sets had gone 71, 49, 63 and 61 minutes. The gas was leaking fast. Hope was sinking like the setting sun. But he kept punching. The problem was his blows were landing on tennis’s answer to Jake La Motta.

Switzerland’s Raging Bull raged on. Murray’s forehand drifted long. There were a minimum of two live games left in the match. Wawrinka charged the net and broke again. One chance left for Murray. He would not allow him the bagel. But a fifth double fault undermined his last stand. It was, it has to be said, a losing finish at dramatic odds with the capitulation of Djokovic against Dominic Thiem the day before.

(Guardian service)

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