The Best Title Defense is a Good Offense

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Wawrinka lived to fight another day in France, something every champion must do. (AP)

It was a match that, in another lifetime, Stan Wawrinka would have appeared destined to lose. 

Fifty weeks after playing the best tennis of his life to beat Novak Djokovic in the 2015 Roland Garros final, Wawrinka was back inside Court Philippe Chatrier and set to begin his title defense in Monday's opening encounter. But what should have been a festive atmosphere, and a moment for Stan to savor, had been rendered bleak and gloomy by the conditions in Paris. 

Rain had postponed play for nearly two hours, and the sky was still overcast as Wawrinka and his first-round opponent, Lukas Rosol, finally took the court. Conditions were heavy, and there was little energy and few spectators in Chatrier, an arena that has a well-earned reputation for raucousness. There were also whispers about how Wawrinka, after winning the title in Geneva, had only arrived in Paris the previous afternoon—would he be ready in time? It was one of those days when only bad things seemed possible for the world No. 4.

The presence of Rosol added to the sense of danger. The Czech has had two claims to enduring fame in his career. In 2012, he played lights-out tennis to upset Rafael Nadal in the second round at Wimbledon. Two years after that high, Rosol reached a nadir of sorts when he was informed on court in Munich by Andy Murray that, “no one likes you on the tour.” 

For Rosol, though, unpopularity is a badge of honor. Perhaps the best thing that can be said of him is that he doesn’t kowtow to the top players, and doesn’t play scared when he faces them. Like his fellow Czech agitator, Radek Stepanek, Rosol has no problem pumping a fist and throwing a stare in the direction of his opponent, even if he happens to be Top 5 royalty.

More important, Rosol doesn’t have a problem throwing a haymaker serve or ground stroke across the net, either. He’s a longtime member of the go-big-or-go-home school, which makes him someone that no one enjoys playing, because he doesn’t let you get any rhythm. Wawrinka knew exactly what he was up against. He had faced Rosol just three days ago in the semis in Geneva, and had struggled to a three-set win. 

Playing someone you've just beaten in a close match is always a psychological test. Suddenly you have to do it all over again. You have to be just as sharp, just as steady, just as opportunistic, just as confident as you were the last time—all so you can accomplish something you’ve already accomplished. That’s hardly the type of thing that motivational speeches are made of. At the same time, your opponent will likely be swinging freely; he can’t do any worse than he did the last time.

That’s how the first three sets between Wawrinka and Rosol played out. Wawrinka looked lost and indecisive. Rather than attack, he let the ball come to him; rather than lean in and drive his legendary backhand, he stepped back and shanked it. Rosol, on the other hand, was playing with predictable freedom. He took the initiative and slugged his forehands and backhands, and was relaxed enough to carve across drop shots and send them bounding wildly sideways. By the third set, Stan’s hair looked like it was literally standing on end. After one Rosol backhand found the line, Wawrinka spit on the mark.

“I don’t think I was very calm inside,” Wawrinka said. “Maybe I was a bit too negative with myself, with how I was playing, not very satisfied.”

Then the fourth set began and the inevitable moment of truth arrived for Rosol. Through four games, he showed no signs of nerves, and he looked more confident than ever when he reached double-break point on Wawrinka’s serve at 2-2. Rosol knew that if he won this point, the match would be on his racquet. Take care of his serve three more times and another major upset was his.

The phrase “you have nothing to lose,” should really be outlawed in tennis. It should be replaced with, “You have nothing to lose—until you do.” At 2-2, 15-40 in the fourth, Rosol finally had something to lose, and he acted like it. For one of the first times all match, he played passively, chipping a forehand into the middle of the court and hoping Wawrinka would miss again. It didn’t work. Stan saved those two break points and held for 3-2. He took the initiative from Rosol, never gave it back, and ended up winning 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in an enervating three hours and 10 minutes.

“In the middle of the third set,” said Wawrinka, who finished with 55 winners to Rosol’s 51, “I calmed down. I didn’t show anything. I was trying to be really tough with him, and eventually that’s what made the difference.”

Toughness hasn’t always been Stan’s strong suit. Even his coach, Magnus Norman, said last year that he had a reputation in the past for being soft. Two years ago, Wawrinka lost in the first round at Roland Garros, and there have been plenty of days, even this season, when he wouldn’t have found a way past a hot-hitting opponent like Rosol. 

This time you can credit what Stan did last year at Roland Garros for getting him over the hump. As the defending champion, Wawrinka had a little more motivation than normal; Rosol, in trying to beat the defending champion, felt a little more pressure than normal when he glimpsed the finish line in the fourth set.

Will Wawrinka’s win help him relax now, or will these three hours on court catch up with him down the road? We’ll see—many a title has begun with an escape. For now, Stan has lived to fight another day, something every champion must know how to do.

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