The Top 10 Matches of 2013

No. 8 of '13: Throwback Throwdown

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

“By next week it may feel like a distant memory, one more cloud of red dust blowing around in the backs of our minds, but Monday’s fourth-round match between Stan Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet shouldn’t be forgotten by fans of great tennis quite so quickly. In a tournament that has already given us its fair share of epics, this one stands above, in terms of drama, quality, and most of all, audacity.”

I wrote those words the day after Wawrinka outlasted Gasquet in the fourth round of the French Open, 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 8-6. Having looked at a few Top 10 Matches of the Year lists this month, it seems that this one hasn't, as I feared, turned into another forgotten cloud of red dust. It wasn't a Grand Slam final, and it didn't determine the No. 1 ranking; in fact, both Wawrinka and Gasquet must have suspected that the road was going to end soon for the loser and the winner—Stan's reward for coming back from two sets down, and running around for 4 hours and 16 minutes, was a quarterfinal date two days later with Rafael Nadal. Yet this match lands at No. 8 on my year-end list for the reasons I mentioned back in June: Quality, theater, and gall. As Wawrinka said afterward, “It was a crazy match.” 

Unfortunately, due to the cyber-vigilance of the French Open, there isn’t much video of the event on the Internet, and nothing I can embed in this post. To see the brief, Roland Garros-compiled highlights I’ll talk about below, go here.

*****

—The clip doesn’t give you a full sense of the test, both physical and emotional, that these guys put each other through. We miss, among other things, Gasquet windmilling the crowd into a frenzy, and Wawrinka losing his mind over a line call. But I like the fact that no commentators’ voices can be heard here. It gives the video the feel of a documentary, one that we might call “The Continuing Tragedy of Richard G.” In 2010, I watched Gasquet lose from two sets up on this same court—Lenglen—to Andy Murray. Both times, the place was packed, the crowd was loud, and the hopes were dashed.

—You can, on a few occasions, see what I meant when I used the word “audacity” to describe the play. Wawrinka’s slap-shot forehand winner into the corner is the best example, but both guys let it fly, and neither backed off. Here's what I wrote at the time:

“In Gasquet we had a home-country favorite trying to put his past failures on the same court behind him; it’s doubtful this reserved young man has ever let himself get so far out on the emotional ledge before. In Wawrinka we had a defiant opponent who was living on the same ledge, and occasionally tumbling over it. At one point Stan came unglued, called in the supervisor, and demanded that a line judge be replaced. Watching the two players go for each other’s throats for five sets, the only term I could think of to describe the style of play was “flat out.”

—The stats were appropriately massive. Wawrinka hit 92 winners against 55 errors; for Gasquet, the ratio was 57 to 46. They came to the net 100 times between them and both had double-digit ace counts. Wawrinka was four for 20 on break points, Gasquet two of 11. Nothing, in short, came easy, and the verdict was in doubt until Wawrinka’s 92nd winner, a rifle-shot forehand on his first match point. A few minutes earlier, Gasquet had a break point at 6-6 in the fifth, for a chance to serve for the match. Half a dozen points later, he was shaking hands as the loser.

“I had so many chances,” the still-tragic Richard G. said afterward. “He played incredibly well. It’s incredibly sad, but that’s tennis. Of course it’s disappointing, but I couldn’t give any more than what I gave today.”

—Stylistically, this was a throwback; physically, it was a sign of the times. Gasquet and Wawrinka each, obviously, have one-handed backhands; we know that shot is eye-candy for tennis aesthetes, and these guys have two of most spectacular. But it wasn’t the elongated elegance of their one-handers that made this meeting so much fun; it was the way they went after the ball from that side. The Frenchman’s power is easy, the Swiss’ is heavy; the two collided for five sets. By the fourth, neither of them could be bothered with a safe rally shot, and there was little of the defensive give-and-take that characterizes much of men’s tennis these days. By the fifth, it didn’t look like either player had any more bullets left, but they kept firing anyway.

Yet in the end, the match was decided not by shot-making, but by fitness. Gasquet, to put it simply, ran out of gas.

“I know after three and a half hours of play,” he said, “I start to get tired.”

“I was thinking to make him work, to make him work hard,” a pulling-no-punches Wawrinka said. “I can keep my level going five hours, that’s not the problem. But for him, I don’t think it’s the same.” 

The legend of Iron Stan was born.

(Speaking of nicknames, how about one for this match? Gasrinka? Wawquet? The Single-Handed Sortie? How about Stanchard?)

—Wawrinka won and Gasquet lost on this day, but each of them went on to have excellent seasons. Stan made his first year-end championships, and Gasquet returned there for the first time in six years. With fellow one-hander Grigor Dimitrov, they gave hope to style snobs everywhere; though in Paris they showed that it can be more than just a pretty shot. The fact that neither Wawrinka nor Gasquet had any hope of advancing past the next round made their willingness to lay it all on the line for this one victory that much more honorable. One win can be enough.

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