The Alps stretch high, their shadows long. Roger Federer is a tennis icon that towers like no other. His fellow Swiss, Stan Wawrinka, is a fine Hall of Fame-bound champion who has won three of the game’s most cherished titles.
But for all his greatness, he is no Roger. Yes, the Stanimal has a far fiercer nickname than the GOAT. He beat Roger the last time they played at Roland Garros in 2015 and he’s won just as many French Opens as Roger has.
But Wawrinka has long labored in Roger’s shadow – it’s hard to outshine an icon. Yet of late, Wawrinka has surged. His catastrophic knee injury of 2017 is behind him. A month ago he drew praise for his “Silence is complicity” letter that celebrated the power of courage and the need for integrity. And just two days ago, Stan was the man when he downed the ATP’s brightest young light, Stefanos Tsitsipas, in the longest match of the year and the best match of the French Open.
As Rafa Nadal headed out to dismiss Kei Nishikori in Roland Garros’ big Stade Philippe Chatrier, Wawrinka again went to work on Court Suzanne Lenglen, in the most anticipated Slam quarterfinal in recent Roland Garros memory.
Stan and Roger have had their testy moments, but they’re friends. When Roger teased him after winning the 2017 Indian Wells, Stan quipped, “You’re an asshole.” Not too many people can get away with telling the mighty Federer such things. The two teamed up to gain the doubles gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Today, in a golden twilight, they again gathered together – this time to give France and the tennis world a glowing moment when in 3:40, Roger scored a 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 win to continue his feel-good rendezvous in Paris.
From the outset, Federer, who has a commanding 22-3 lead in their rivalry, gained the upper hand, with four break points throughout a tense first set. But Wawrinka stoutly rebuffed the master at every turn. Oddly, today we did not see the flowing, sublime Roger. Absent was the maestro who punches time in the gut and whose every point is a dance.
Rather we saw Roger muff the simplest of overheads – they seemed headed for Versailles. He shanked backhands that careened towards the stands, was caught off balance and was out of sorts. He had to retrieve – at times, all he could do was offer moonballs. In frustration, Roger shook his head, stared at the clay and gently bashed his strings.
But every time we winced, Roger would turn things around, with a devastating forehand, delicate drop shots or backhands that wrong-footed Wawrinka. He even blasted three aces in a game. In a match filled with momentum swings, Federer claimed the first set tie-break.
Then Wawrinka showed his pedigree. He has the most powerful backhand in tennis. Together with his forehand, he may have the best one-two punch of anyone on tour. Barrel-chested and built like a linebacker, he has a physicality that only Nadal, Del Potro and Monfils can match. “The strength of Wawrinka,” said Sophie Amiach, “is absolute genius.”
After not being able to challenge Roger’s serve in the first set, Stan broke early in the second and soon evened the battle at a set apiece. Then in the third, Wawrinka broke to gain a 4-3 lead. Would the second-fiddle Swiss be able to derail the Federer-Nadal semi so many craved?
No. Federer promptly broke back and then took a commanding lead in the third-set tiebreak. But on a day in which Roger would convert only 2 of 18 break points, he needed four set points before he took the third set 7-6.
Then the world said, “Hold on.” Paris’ hot temperatures and blue skies vanished. Ominous clouds descended. It was dark. The classic Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final in 2008 came to mind. The match was suspended. One thought of the 1991 and 1999 French Open finals, when rain changed everything. In 1991 Jim Courier turned things around against Agassi. In 1999 Agassi reversed the tables on Andrei Medvedev.
After a 67-minute rain delay the Swiss duo returned. The light was stunning – the drama was not. Roger quickly broke and won to assure a dreamy semifinal that we almost got in Indian Wells before Rafa had to withdraw.
Federer will be playing in his 8th French semi, and he’ll be trying to make history as the first man ever to defeat Rafa in the semis. The Spaniard is 11-0 in semis here. The last time the two met here was in 2011 when Rafa won in four sets. So does the 37-year-old Roger have a real shot against the King of Clay, whose lefty dirt blitzes have throttled him in the past?
Federer has won the last five times they’ve played. But he didn’t exactly ooze with confidence. He spoke of how hard it was to play a southpaw and said, “Like against any player, there is always a chance. Otherwise nobody would be in the stadium…[I] know it’s going to be tough…He might have a problem. He might be sick…You might be playing great or for some reason he’s struggling. Maybe there’s incredible wind, rain, ten rain delays…That’s why you…put yourself in that position.”
Rafa leads their rivalry 23-15 and is 15-2 on clay. Roger noted that these days the road to a Roland Garros title goes through Rafa. He quipped, “That’s what I signed up for.” On Friday, tennis fans around the globe will be signing up for a hopefully delicious semi between the two most compelling and charismatic ATP players of our era. And, rain or shine, that sounds pretty golden.