By mentioning Stan Wawrinka in the title of a piece written two weeks before the 2018 French Open begins, you might think that I am giving serious consideration to the idea that Stanimal can win this year in Paris.
Let me be clear: No. I am not considering that idea.
I mention Wawrinka here because both of Madrid’s finalists offer reason to evoke Wawrinka’s name… and his game.
Alexander Zverev evokes Wawrinka’s name mostly because he is, at 21, already such a polar opposite of the player Stan has become. These are nearly exact inversions of a tennis player. Zverev, following a third Masters title and a second M-1000 trophy on European red clay, does well at the middle- and second-tier tournaments on the ATP calendar, but has done nothing of note (for good reasons, at any rate) at the majors. Stan? He stumbles through the 500s and Masters but, in the five-set realm he loves so well, thrives at majors and has made that his pathway to an assured future spot in the Tennis Hall of Fame.
Yet, as utterly different as Zverev’s and Wawrinka’s respective track records are — and as different as they are in their backhands, and as different as they are in the power of their forehands — one very interesting point is worth noting: In 2014, after having won a clay Masters event (Monte Carlo), Wawrinka bombed out of Roland Garros against a Spaniard (Guillermo Garcia-Lopez) in round one.
Why is that an interesting point? The same thing happened to Zverev in 2017. He won a clay Masters (Rome) and came to Paris thinking he could make a big run. A Spaniard (Fernando Verdasco) ambushed him in round one.
Wawrinka drifted through most of the first half of his next season in 2015. He did very little at the clay warm-up events to suggest that he was ready to make a big run at the French Open. He beat Rafael Nadal in the Rome quarterfinals but then played an atrocious match against Roger Federer in the semifinals. Wawrinka endured a bad patch of play, as pros inevitably do… but when the time came to pick himself off the ground and dust off his clothes, he was ready. He stormed the Bastille in France to win the 2015 French Open, powering past Novak Djokovic in the final after losing a routine first set. Wawrinka could have let a first-round disaster at Roland Garros in 2014 to hijack his confidence, and while he did wobble at times in the 12 months following that loss, he succeeded in remaining resolute and building back his belief.
Zverev has a similar opportunity to write the kind of history Wawrinka authored at Roland Garros. YES, a guy named Nadal is playing great — unlike 2015 — but it’s not as though Wawrinka was favored to beat Djokovic in Paris three years ago. He wasn’t. Moreover, Zverev doesn’t have to win Roland Garros for this to be a successful 2018 event for him. If he makes the final, it will be a fantastic tournament for him. Given that he will be seeded no lower than third — possibly second — he might get a Nadal-free path until the final. Zverev would be mightily encouraged by that result… and the questions about his chops at majors would dramatically fade into the background.
Zverev, though utterly unlike Wawrinka in so many ways, can follow Stan’s footprints at the upcoming French Open.
Now, to the loser in the Madrid final, and how he and Wawrinka are related.
This is more an association of playing styles, because in Wawrinka, one can find the model for how Thiem needs to not only play, but handle moments.
Thiem had been to a Masters final before. More precisely, he had been to a Madrid final before. Yet, this time he was not playing Rafael Nadal. This time, he was the player who ended his Saturday semifinal several hours before Zverev did. He was the player who came through a routine semifinal and showed that the “Nadal Curse” — playing a match the day after beating Rafa — did not spell certain doom. Thiem had passed so many tough tests in Madrid. This was his moment to shine… a moment in which he was expected to do well.
That kind of pressure seemed to get to him, against an opponent who — while a few years younger — had tasted and triumphed over the pressure of a Masters final in the past.
Thiem can look to Wawrinka for inspiration here. Wawrinka is a player who lives for the big moment, and who — against members of the Big Four (Djokovic) and beyond (Berdych, Murray, Nishikori) — has shown that he can win major finals and semifinals.
Thiem can also look to Wawrinka as an example in terms of how to play with authority… but also margin. Thiem could not modulate his groundstrokes in a way that they were both imposing and efficient. If Thiem hit a winner on Sunday against Zverev, it was often a low-percentage shot. Thiem couldn’t settle into a comfortable high-margin consistency — that was Zverev.
One can see traces of Wawrinka’s game in Thiem, the difference being that Stan knows how to handle moments and calibrate his shots better, picking opportunities at the right times. Thiem should not be dejected by this loss — it was a new thing for him to play a big final and not see Nadal on the other side of the net — but as is the case with his non-clay career, Thiem has to be much, much better at making adjustments.
Alexander Zverev has become the much quicker study on that score, and that’s why the German — not Thiem — is the 2018 Madrid champion.