It may be an overused term when anticipating the meeting of two tennis heavyweights, but tonight’s French Open Final truly is the unstoppable force against the immovable object.
The force is the jaw-dropping power that emerges from the racquet of Stanislas Wawrinka.
The immovable object is the 16-0 record of Novak Djokovic on clay in 2015, and a 27 match win streak overall.
When the two collide on Sunday evening, only one will emerge with the coveted Coupe des Mousquetaires, one that, if it could talk, would almost certainly ask “Wait a minute, where’s Rafa?”
There can be no doubt as to who the form favours. Ahead in the ATP rankings by nearly 5,000 ranking points (the equivalent of two grand slams and a Masters 1000 title), Novak Djokovic is unquestionably the toughest task in tennis right now.
Though conceding two straight sets to the in-form Andy Murray in the Semis, Djokovic’s 6-1 victory in the fifth slammed the door on the Scot, who had yet to lose a match on clay this season and had played some of the best tennis of his career in the match.
Wawrinka’s victory over Tsonga was equally impressive, but for completely different reasons. While Djokovic’s win reinforced his position as the clear front-runner in men’s tennis, Wawrinka played nowhere near his best tennis for extended periods against Tsonga, yet still managed to come away the victor.
The statistic most indicative of this? Wawrinka saved 16 of 17 break points.
Such clutch serving will have to be on show again for Stan, if he is to stand any chance of outgunning the best returner in the game.
Wawrinka’s 22-8 record for the season doesn’t jump out like Djokovic’s 35-2, but ‘Stan the Man’ lives for the big moment, with a 4-2 record against top 10 players this season, finally willing to embrace the occasion rather than, as he had in his formative years, shy away from it.
Some will look at Djokovic’s 17-3 head-to-head record against Wawrinka and consider the winner of the final a foregone conclusion.
However, those with even a modicum of tennis understanding will know the Wawrinka of the last couple of years is far better than a 3-17 record would suggest.
Of their last four grand slam encounters, all four have gone the distance (five sets), Wawrinka’s 2014 victory over Djokovic 9-7 in the fifth part of an incredible run by the Swiss, culminating in his maiden grand slam victory at the Australian Open.
Still, Djokovic has still had Wawrinka’s number for the most part in slams, their most recent meeting a 6-0 victory in the fifth for the Serb.
Thus, while history may read as a lopsided affair, the two are far more equally matched than the numbers suggest.
The game plan
Make no mistake, Djokovic’s barnstorming victory over Nadal was one that would be decided on the form of Djokovic, rather than that of Rafa.
Conversely, Wawrinka is one of the few players on tour who can decide the outcome of this match off his own racquet.
Where most players (such as Djokovic) are equally balanced in upper and lower body strength, Wawrinka’s build is somewhat unique in the tennis world, his stocky upper body frame allowing for power off both wings, and a remarkable ability to slam winners from almost any part of the court.
It’s this power that was on display in Wawrinka’s 43 winner demolition of Roger Federer, and such form will need to be on display in the final if the Swiss is to have any hope.
Look for Wawrinka to engage in backhand to backhand rallies with the Serb, before pulling the trigger down the line to put Djokovic on the defensive and open up the court.
From Djokovic’s point of view, look for him to approach the net slightly more than usual, exposing Wawrinka’s deficiency in leg speed compared to most residents of the top 10.
Furthermore, Stan has and will continue to be a patchy player (four of his eight losses this season have come to players outside the top 20), so look for the ever-reliable Djokovic to make Stan play ball after ball after ball when exchanging blows from the baseline.
Overall, Wawrinka is a power player, and will look to crunch the ball at any opportunity, something he’ll need to do effectively and consistently for three sets if he is to outplay the one-man-wall that is Novak Djokovic.
How sweet it must be for Djokovic to look to the other side of the net in a French Open final and not see Rafael Nadal snarling back at him.
How daunting it must be to look to the other side of the net and not see Rafael Nadal, realising everyone in Court Philipe Chatrier expects you to take out the victory, anything less perceived as a dismal failure.
Djokovic’s frame of mind will line up with one of these two scenarios. This is the slam he has coveted most since his breakout 2011 season, the Coupe des Mousquetaires the only vacancy on his trophy cabinet that separates him from seven other men who’ve achieved the career slam (winning all four grand slam titles at least once).
Since this is clearly Djokovic’s most desired title, it’s also the place where he’s most susceptible to mental pressure. If there was any doubt as to the favourite for this event, it was dispatched in three neat sets by Djokovic in the quarters. So far, though, he has shown no signs of faltering at any mental hurdles placed in front of him, so there should be no reason to doubt him here.
On the other hand, Stan Wawrinka shouldn’t feel pressured at all, and a free swinging Wawrinka is a daunting prospect for any player, and should test the defensive capabilities of Djokovic to their very limits.
Stan Wawrinka will go into this match full of confidence, aware he’s easily the underdog, and has been able to win even without his best in previous match-ups.
However, there’s a reason he’s a huge underdog. He takes on one of the the toughest tests in tennis history, facing an already impenetrable Djokovic on a surface that amplifies such ability.
Wawrinka has a Samuel Beckett quote tattooed on his arm. It reads ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Against the undisputed number one of men’s tennis, he looks destined to do what so many have against Djokovic.
Prediction – Djokovic in four sets