In the opinion of many tennis fans, the word “epic” gets thrown around far too casually. But with some matches, no other term will do; Stan Wawrinka’s 7-6 (6), 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, 8-6 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas at Roland Garros on Sunday was one of those matches.
What else could you call a contest that went for five hours and nine minutes in the June heat? In which the losing player won 195 points, and the winning player 194? In which the winning player hit 62 winners, and the losing player 61? Many of us had expected that the first meeting between the 34-year-old Swiss and the 20-year-old Greek would be a war—between big forehands, big one-handed backhands, and even bigger personalities. Wawrinka and Tsitsipas more than lived up to those expectations, as they dug their trenches in the dirt on Court Suzanne Lenglen and fired their ground-stroke rockets across the net.
By the fifth hour and the fifth set, they looked the part of Sunday clay-court warriors: Tsitsipas’ clothes were covered in red dirt from his many dives at the net, while Wawrinka’s face was slathered in white sunblock, and his hair was stood on end. The contrasts in their reactions afterward said it all about how much they put into this fourth-rounder, and how much it meant to them.
“Playing in front of such a crowd, such a big atmosphere, five-set match in a Grand Slam, that’s the reason why I came back from surgery,” a tired but glowing Wawrinka said. “Because I love and enjoy to play in front of people, to play in the biggest tournaments you can play.”
By contrast, when Tsitsipas crumpled into his seat in the interview room looking decimated, he was unable to answer that most standard of post-match questions: Can you describe how you feel?
“No, sorry,” Tsitsipas said, before finally conceding, “I feel exhausted. I don’t know. Never experience something like this in my life. I feel very disappointed in the end.”
What Tsitsipas had never experienced was the particular pain of losing a five-setter in the later rounds of a Slam—he had played just one fifth set in his career before today. He hadn’t experienced the ebbs and flows, peaks and lulls, that come with any five-hour match, and the mental stamina needed to ride them out. With each set, the momentum swing back and forth, and the emotions of each player rose and fell in turn.
Wawrinka cupped his hands behind his ears and flapped his arms, urging the crowd, which was mostly behind him, for an energy boost. Tsitsipas pumped his fist in triumph after winning shots; pointed at the clay, as if to say, “This is my house!”; and destroyed a water bottle in rage after losing a game. In the fifth set, Wawrinka began to point to his temple when he made a good play; not long after, Tsitsipas began to do the same thing.
Tennis-wise, they were also even matched. This was a battle of long rallies and quick strikes. Tsitsipas rolled his forehand crosscourt and darted to the net whenever he had the chance; he won 50 of 74 points there. Wawrinka drilled his own ground strokes for cold winners from well behind the baseline. Stan said afterward that he’s getting “older and older,” but he also seems to be getting strong and stronger. Even from 10 feet deep in the court, in the vicinity of the line judges, he was able to handcuff Tsitsipas with his viciously dipping passes.
In the end, despite everything that went on in Lenglen, this match came down to one stat: Tsitsipas’s percentage of break points converted—he was just five of 27, and zero for eight in the fifth set. In the decider, Wawrinka saved three break points in the first game, with excellent serving. In the fifth game, he saved two more by attacking the net; if there’s a shot that will keep Tsitsipas up tonight, it will likely be the fairly easy forehand pass that he sent just wide at 2-2, 15-40. In the 11th game, with the match on the line, Wawrinka saved three more break points; on two of them, Tsitsipas’s forehand, which had been such a weapon all day, abandoned him.
The match reached its summit on Tsitsipas’s third break point at 5-5. He charged the net, and Wawrinka pounded a backhand right at him. Tsitsipas had failed numerous times to handle that shot, but this time he did, reflexing a volley back. But even after five hours, the 34-year-old Wawrinka was there to rifle another forehand pass. This time Tsitsipas couldn’t handle it; the ball ended up in the net, and he ended up flat on the clay one more time.
Still, this match wouldn’t have felt complete without a properly dramatic curtain-closer. Serving at 6-7, Tsitsipas, still unable to find his forehand, went down 15-40, double match point. After smacking his palm against his head six times, he saved the first match point. On the second—the 389th point of the afternoon—Tsitsipas came to net for the 74th time, and Wawrinka floated a backhand down the line. At first, it appeared that the ball would land in the alley, but its sidespin curled it toward the sideline, where it landed, smack on the tape, for the 133rd and final winner of the match. A few seconds later, Wawrinka and Tsitsipas ended in an embrace at the net.
“Long time that—long time since I cried after a match,” Tsitsipas stammered afterward, “so emotionally wasn’t easy to handle. I will try to learn from it as much as I can.”
“I think he would have deserved as much as me to win the match today,” Wawrinka said. “It’s for sure a tough loss for him, but it was something that was a big battle.”
“Today it was really amazing.”
Catch up on Week 1 at Roland Garros on the TENNIS.com Podcast: