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Roland Garros Endgame: Stanos was a marvel

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Stan. Stefanos. Stanos was the central feature of the second Sunday of Roland Garros 2019. The movie theater known as Court Suzanne Lenglen was stuffed.

The film was very long and every entertaining. Patrons stood and cheered when it was all over.

The match contained a universe of emotions. It was a marvel.

This wasn’t a comic book. It was a tennis match, but “Roland Garros Endgame: Stanos” was a feel-good tennis experience — not due to technical precision or clinical mastery (which were not always present in this contest), but because it was such a good story.

The scoreboard might say that Tsitsipas lost, but in reality, everyone won.

Is that too simplistic? Is it a naive piece of sunshine-pumping? Maybe… but I ultimately don’t think so.

After every close, dramatic match — especially at major tournaments — I ask myself if a match was more fundamentally won by the winner or lost by the loser. There is no universal formula or fixed equation to use in order to arrive at this determination — the specific circumstances will always be slightly different at a granular level — but it is important to wrestle with this basic tension point because, over the course of a full career, it helps to keep an inventory of whether players win matches they should have won, lose matches they should have won, win matches they should have lost, and lose matches they should have lost.

Single matches don’t necessarily define careers, but they can highlight, represent, or magnify fundamental traits of athletes and the careers they forge. Arriving at the right point of emphasis — the properly calibrated description or assessment — for one match helps every commentator compare and contrast matches over the course of whole careers. Being sure to properly characterize Match A here in 2019 enables a commentator or analyst to explain why Match B in 2021 or Match C in 2018 was different… and what that means.

So, let’s go back to Stanos and this episode of Roland Garros Endgame, an entertainment bonanza which didn’t gross over $2 billion at the box office but still left a definite positive impression on a global audience…

Some days, you save all the break points against a Swiss opponent at a major. Other days, you fail to convert them. This is Stefanos Tsitsipas’s reality at the majors in 2019. He kept saving break points against Roger Federer in Australia, and he went 0 for 8 on break points against Wawrinka in the fifth set, 5 of 27 overall.

Tsitsipas’s misses on break points at 5-5 in the final set were good misses. He went for the lines on ambitious shots which, had they landed in, would have put Wawrinka in a highly defensive position. Earlier in the set, Wawrinka was in fact in a defensive position, but Tsitsipas couldn’t stick his volleys as well as he did earlier in the match.

This really was a matter of a handful of points, and a handful of good, aggressive misses, in a 5-hour, 9-minute match. The losing player didn’t give away this match. The losing player missed well-chosen shots by very small margins. There is nothing for Tsitsipas to be fundamentally upset about. If he lived on the right side of a break-point divide against Federer in Melbourne, he lived on the other side against Stan. I’m not sure anything more can be drawn from the reality that he lost. You can play well and fight well and still lose. Tsitsipas had to shoulder that reality on Sunday.

Wawrinka won, but Tsitsipas impressed me so much by battling for more than five hours after having to play on three straight days (Friday through Sunday) and having slightly hyperextended his right knee late on Friday against Filip Krajinovic. Tsitsipas was vocally berating himself for much of this match, the sign of a player who needed to vent his emotions and find a way to fire himself up when the body was struggling. Tsitsipas’s ability to find a second wind in that fifth set — he had been dragging in the third set and seemed entirely on the ropes after he fell behind two sets to one — was amazing. That display of resilience reaffirmed the widely-held belief that Tsitsipas has the makeup and demeanor of a future major champion.

In Australia, Tsitsipas was shocked by how easily Rafael Nadal beat him. In this match, Tsitsipas — playing just his second five-set match ever — absorbed the sting of losing a marathon battle. Absorbing these experiences, understanding what it takes to win in prolonged matches under adverse circumstances, can only benefit him by turning conceptual knowledge into directly encountered real-life knowledge.

Tsitsipas advanced his career at this tournament, despite the “R-16” result which won’t look sexy on the ledger sheet. He can lament the outcome, but he can’t regret the way he played or competed.

This was the “losing” player.

That’s why I say that everyone won in this match.

Stan Wawrinka, though, ACTUALLY won. He withstood Tsitsipas’s net-rushing barrage and generally stronger groundstrokes. He survived all those break points, especially in set five. He was down 4-2 and 6-5 in the first-set tiebreaker; surviving that set the table for the rest of the match, forcing Tsitsipas to play from behind on the scoreboard.

It was an accident (phrased differently, a random event) that Tsitsipas lost. It is harder to say that it was an accident Stan won.

Why? Stan has done this several times before.

Remember when Wawrinka won his most recent major, at the 2016 U.S. Open? He saved match point against Dan Evans. He needed time to work his way into the tournament, as he always does at majors. Wawrinka escaped Evans and turned that Houdini act into a third major trophy.

Stan has done what he did on Sunday several times in his career. The drama of this match on Sunday lay in the fact that Wawrinka had not yet made a deep run at a major since his knee injury in the summer of 2017. His last deep run at a major was in 2017 at Roland Garros, when he reached the final.

He knew how to do this — or more precisely, he never forgot — but with a new body after a significant interruption to his career, some creeping doubts were part of his reality. If Tsitsipas was struggling with the grind of playing through wear and tear and a lot of court time, Wawrinka was struggling with the pressure of needing to reprove himself for the first time in his post-injury existence. Wawrinka won the first and third sets, then started the second and fourth sets as flat as a tortilla. The pre-injury version of Stan probably would have pulled away. This version was still hesitant and uncertain — aware of what he could achieve, but not as ruthless as he once was.

The full drama of this match was captured in Stef’s fatigue and Stan’s inner doubts. The ups and downs of Sunday’s long movie made Stanos such a crowd-pleaser.

Tsitsipas reaffirmed every positive notion about his champion-in-the-making mentality.

Wawrinka reaffirmed his ability to make a deep run in a major after doing relatively nothing in the previous few months, a signature trait of these last five transformative years as a tennis player.

This wasn’t a masterpiece, a portrait of classical beauty… but it was an emotional marvel rich with personal meaning for both men.

May there be more episodes of Stanos as entertaining as this one. Everyone inside the theater known as Court Lenglen was captivated. The larger theater of tennis captivated a worldwide audience. A 20-year-old with a bright future and a 34-year-old trying to build on the glories of the past both left a deep imprint on the human imagination… and the terre battue of Paris.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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