Stan Wawrinka, 2015 singles champion at the Internationaux de France, represents maturity in tennis professionalism. He has a calm demeanor on court, without the adolescent body language that persists in many athletes, and tennis players in particular, well into their careers.
Nothing wrong with this, it is who they are and you could even say it is a quality of individual personalities. They exhale. They throw their heads back and shrug their shoulders. Sometimes they smash their racquets.
Alexander Zverev, one of the great young players of today and by many observers’ lights, including other players’, the Next Big Thing, actually broke a racket on his knee to work out some inner kinks as he lost to a caballero named Fernando Verdasco in the first round at Philippe-Chatrier stadium. Verdasco’s fine run crashed several rounds later against another racquet case, Kei Nishokori. The Japanese star only bangs the rim of his racquet on the ground, catches it on the rebound. One fellow last year threw a racquet, it hit a line referee, caused him to bleed (leg wound). Penalty, expelled from draw, fine. Punishment is sometimes the best therapy.
Stan gets angry too, who doesn’t? But Stanislaw Wawrinka — his friend and compatriot Roger Federer used to call him Stanimal for his grit and toughness, but now he is known as Stan the Man — is cool. You can see him muttering, even hear him if you are close enough, on the court, and sometimes he looks down at his feet in frustration, but these are fast feet and he knows he has no cause to blame them. If the great Elmore Leonard, who wrote about cool guys, had written a novel with a tennis player hero, he would have studied Stan.
Federer is graceful, elegant, masterful, and he stays calm in all circumstances. Novak Djokovic, rather less so, you see him shaking his head, or wearing a can-you-believe-this smirk directed at a linesman, or an ump, or himself. He snaps at ball boys sometimes — what’s the matter kid, can’t you hustle with that towel? — though he is known to be very kind to them after the match and plays with them.
Stan is cool. He is not the handsomest of tennis stars, square of body (which makes him look heavier than he is, in fact he is a lean and muscular six even, one-seventy), a face that looks somewhat pudgy, with thick rather than sharp lines, ordinary nose and mouth neither striking nor strong. But he is one of these men who makes it all look good, because of the way he carries himself and looks you in the eye and answers straight and direct and clear. You see him playing the lead in Elmore’s The Hot Kid, the Texas Ranger staring down the bad guy and saying without raising his voice, “I won’t draw first, but when I do, I’ll shoot to kill.”
The law as it should be. American foreign policy as it ought to be. Stan is as Swiss as they come, and he is a ringer for Wyatt Earp.
He stands there, alone against a crowd of thousands, screaming for his scalp. They scream Gael Gael Gael between every point. They yell like soccer fans. They wave placards and signs.
A form of hometown patriotism. Gael is a homeboy, a Paris boy, and this is the French Open and no Frenchman has won since before most of these screamers were born, in the bygone glory days of Yannick Noah, father of the former Chicago Bulls basketball star.
No harm in hometown support. They kind of overdo it, though, if you ask me. The other day Kristina Mladenovic, hometown girl sort of (she is from Normandy), beat defending champ Garbine Muguruza and the fans were brutal. Really bad. Garbine hung in there for three sets but could not handle the pressure, though if you ask me — but no, I have to stay fair and accurate. And now Kristina is the Cinderella of the tournament and it is going to be brutal when she plays Swiss miss Timea Bacsinszky, who will feel what Venus Williams felt when they played two days ago.
Manners, manners. A couple years ago it seems, in the press box they forbade food. Fair enough, it is sloppy and the stadia are not very large and particularly at Chatrier you are supposed to show manners. So, a press guy would come in dressed like a slob and start slurping a drink and masticating a sandwich and a black-suited guardian of manners and order would appear and say politely, Monsieur, etc.
No more. I raised the issue with one of my old black suit pals. He growled la Federation… He meant the FFT, they are trying to be nice, caving to today’s low standards. Then he made a comment on democratic disorder. I was impressed. Reads Tocqueville? Leo Strauss? Good man.
But there stands Stan, like a stone wall. He and Gael Monfils are fabulous. Monfils is one of the all-time best athletes in history. Andre Agassi, who is here to coach Novak Djokovic — who in fact is doing better than earlier in the season — says so. He told the local sports paper, l’Equipe, that Monfils is the greatest athlete in tennis. But, he added, he is uncoachable. Wawrinka out foxed and outplayed him in straight sets, but you could argue he outfoxed and uncoached himself. He moved in and let Stan pass him, when he stood on the line with his big booming accurate forehand. He let Stan find or set up angles for winners.
And still, it took three hours, as long as four or even five setters, and they went to a tiebreak in the second that went to 9-7 and there were close, hair-raising nail-biting points, throughout the first two sets, you might have seen it all before and still you could not quite believe how they were hitting so hard with such accuracy.
Stan was not bothered by Gael’s acrobatics any more than he paid heed to the crowd’s bias. He knows his man, knew he was wearing himself out. In fact, the third set was comparatively easy, and no one failed to see Monfils was out of gas. Even his coach, who may well agree in his heart with Andre Agassi, said so. He played the wrong game, he said afterward.
Gael, intuitive genius, cannot beat Stan, who is a strategic genius. Wawrinka has the best backhand in tennis, a mighty sweeping one-handed stroke that he can put anywhere, on any line, on any corner. He used it or Gael let him use it. It worked.