Matt Zemek

On the blank canvas of life, so many stories can be written in so many different ways. Human beings long for the epic tale or the rousing thriller, but we can’t — and don’t — always get the romantic happy ending or the unforgettably dramatic crescendo. We are not at our best every day (even Rafael Nadal loses to Dominic Thiem on clay every now and then). Not every morning will transport us into a joyful, sunny place of equilibrium where we always get out of bed the right way, with a smile and a spring in our step. If we could know that life would always sort itself out, we would carry a lot less stress and fear… but that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Life is both challenging and rewarding because it doesn’t offer very many guarantees, because it can’t machine-crank happy scenarios or ideal outcomes with relentless consistency. Living through ups and downs — enduring suffering, being at peace with ourselves in our worst moments — is essential to the art of being human.

On Monday at Roland Garros, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez lived well.

He didn’t live perfectly, dropping two straight sets and being down a break in the fourth, but as soon as his opponent — a former French Open champion and three-time major titlist named Stan Wawrinka — let down his guard, Garcia-Lopez was ready to pounce. He got back on serve, made fewer mistakes in a pivotal fourth-set tiebreaker, and bossed the fifth set, outplaying Wawrinka by a wide margin.

The result was hardly shocking — Wawrinka’s body needs time to become a fully functioning mechanism — yet it was anything but guaranteed. Any victory over a player of Wawrinka’s caliber is something to be proud of in any circumstance, but for Garcia-Lopez, the fact that he climbed past Stan — not any other prominent player — carried an extra measure of quiet satisfaction.

This wasn’t a trumpet-blast moment of extraordinary consequence for Garcia-Lopez. He didn’t reach his first-ever major quarterfinal or Masters semifinal (two milestones he has not yet attained). At age 34, it is hard for him or anyone else to expect a substantial rise up the rankings ladder. Everyone will, moreover, remind him that “Stan was not fully healthy,” taking away a large measure of buzz from the moment.

Garcia-Lopez doesn’t care. He shouldn’t.

This moment was very personal for him, specifically because of the many ways life’s stories are written. Wawrinka — rusty or not, healthy or not — means a lot to GGL’s tennis journey in the present moment, and furthermore, he always will.

This was not the first time GGL and Wawrinka had met in the first round of Roland Garros. It was four years ago when the Swiss, having beaten Roger Federer in the Monte Carlo final and riding high after winning the 2014 Australian Open, carried an entirely new aura about himself as he came to Paris. Yet, in round one, Garcia-Lopez convincingly outplayed Wawrinka and stunned him in four sets.

What is the thing tennis fans and observers love to see in upset winners? The ability to back up that victory with more victories and not turn into a pumpkin immediately after the one match in which everything goes right. In 2014 at Roland Garros, Garcia-Lopez did indeed back up his upset with two more triumphs to reach his first-ever fourth round at a major. Wawrinka was the gateway to that new height. Yet, if Stan opened a door for Garcia-Lopez at that 2014 French Open, he closed one several months later.

At the 2015 Australian Open, Garcia-Lopez — playing Wawrinka — let two different sets slip away in tiebreakers. He had Wawrinka in trouble in the fourth set but let him escape with nerve-laden errors in the worst possible situations. The 10-8 tiebreaker loss did more than eliminate Garcia-Lopez from a major. It denied him a first major quarterfinal. Beyond that, the loss — in GGL’s second major fourth round in a span of eight months — shattered the Spaniard’s confidence.

Garcia-Lopez has never been back to the fourth round of a major since that afternoon in Australia. Wawrinka was the man GGL defeated to begin the best stretch of his career… and Stan was also the man who began GGL’s downward slide, which he has never fully recovered from.

This match on Monday — four years after a separate victory over Wawrinka in Paris — was not freighted with the same level of importance or momentousness. The 2014 upset of the then-reigning Australian Open champion sent shockwaves through the tennis world. This one won’t register the same way on the Richter scale — not on a global level.

It is, however, profoundly meaningful for Garcia-Lopez. Stan’s story is intertwined with the Spaniard’s journey. Being able to beat the Swiss one more time at a major tournament might remind GGL of the Australian Open match which got away, but it will likely remind him a lot more of the French Open match which fell into place, initiating the best eight months of Garcia-Lopez’s career.

GGL has a match to prepare for, so the time for sentimentality is not yet at hand. However, when Garcia-Lopez considers his whole career and looks back on the various matches he played, this one will occupy a special place. This match mattered less in terms of career milestones, but a lot more in terms of reminding a professional athlete that near the end of the line, he was able to call forth his better competitive qualities against a player of distinction… and not for the first or only time.

That, truly, is a source of quiet satisfaction.


Photo credit Leslie Billman, .

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