As Stan Wawrinka and Stefanos Tsitsipas approached the fifth hour of their round of 16 matches at the French Open in the Suzanne Lenglen Stadium of Paris’s storied Roland-Garros, it was like this: who’s going to blink?
They play a comparable but very different game: two of the most gorgeous one-handed backhands in the sport (the others belong to Richard Gasquet and Roger Federer), and they aim big shots to the lines and they have no fear at all as they shoot those balls at each other as deep and hard as they can.
But whereas Wawrinka is a baseline hitter who takes his time to close points with a mix of placement and power, Tsitsipas is a young man in a hurry who, like Roger Federer to whom he is sometimes compared, likes to serve and volley and goes to the net at every opportunity.
Indeed, Wawrinka caught on early that he would have to neutralize that attacking game. He did it with a mix of resilience and brute power, twice making Tsitsipas bite the dust, the clay that is, as he hit stunning passing shots that knocked him over as he lunged for them from close up; which did not keep him from coming back for more.
The two styles were as different as they were evenly matched. Although both players went through stretches when their service was clicking so well that it was easy to hold, so many games went to deuce that it was soon evident that unless one or the other found a weakness in the other or faltered in his own endurance, it would be a long match. It was — and because it was played so well, it made up for what, until then, had been a fairly staid, predictable tournament, with the top men — Federer, defending champion Rafa Nadal, and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, mowing down their early round opponents without dropping sets and rarely facing breaks.
It was as if on the last day of the first week, the full range of excitement that clay can provide, with long rallies and dramatic volleys and intensely close games, was returning to the classic venue on Paris’s west end.
The famous old stadium is located on the avenue Gordon-Bennett. Like many other streets and avenues in Paris, this one is named for a great American, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., press baron (New York Herald) and sportsman (sailing, tennis, polo) extraordinaire. Gordon Bennett was something of a Francophile, dying in the south of France in 1918, and without knowing much about him, he is one of those Americans Parisians like to think as one of “their” Americans.
If he is paying attention, he will be disappointed that there will be no Americans in the second week of men’s singles. Taylor Fritz (California) made it to the second round and was ousted by a Spaniard named Roberto Bautista-Augut, after beating an Australian in the first round, Bernard Tomic, who allows as how he hates clay anyway and did not put up much of an effort. His near contemporary bad-boy tennis genius, Nick Kyrgios, did not even show, saying clay is a vile surface to play on and he was concentrating on preparing for the grass season.
He is entitled to his opinion, of course, but clay has unique qualities and you have to develop endurance (the slower surface makes for longer points, which is what players like Federer and Tsitsipas try to break out of) and a certain ability to slide into the point of contact with the ball.
Tennys Sandgren, Reilly Opelka, Mackenzie MacDonald could not get past the first round. Tommy Paul was beaten by Dominic Thiem — Austrian, not Vietnamese, I must remind Mr. Pleszczynski — and arguably our most promising young gun, College Park’s own Frances Tiafoe, was ousted by Filip Krajinovic, a young product of Sombor in northern Serbia, home town of my friends Dejan and Magdala, who follow his progress closely. Serbian tennis is huge, like Dominican baseball.
It is fine for Serbia but it is kind of depressing for us, and many of our players did not even show. John Isner, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, Michael Mmoh, Jared Donaldson — I must be missing some, they all stayed home under various pretexts. It’s a free country. Rajeed Ram (Colorado) is advancing in doubles with Brit partner Joe Salisbury; they will meet a French team in the quarters.
Clay, admittedly, is not a surface Americans often play on. Since the start of the Open era, 1968 — a wretched year on so many fronts — Americans have won three times, Michael Chang in ’89 and Jim Courier in ’91 and ’92. That is about it. Andre Agassi was a contender, but never held aloft the cup of the Musketeers.
On the other hand, our women have been dominant here, with Venus and Serena Williams winning many times in this century and two of their possible successors, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keyes, going strong into the second week this year. Both Miss Williamses went down in early rounds, as did the world No. 1, the American-raised Japanese Haitian prodigy, Naomi Osaka, who visibly has trouble finding her footing on clay.
Misses Stephens and Keyes will be joined in the second week’s rounds by Amanda Anisimova (New Jersey) and maybe Sofia Kenin, who faces Austrialian dynamo Ashleigh Barty.
That is the news from Roland-Garros, and it is little comfort to know that the French men are doing little better, even on their home courts, than we are. The talented but erratic Benoît Paire was battling Japanese ace Kei Nishikori late Sunday when their match was suspended on account of darkness, and that is about it, except for their best player, Gaël Monfils, who will be facing Dominic Thiem — the same one, Mr. P. — in the quarters on Monday. Thiem is looking to follow up his defeat of Rafa Nadal at the Barcelona tournament a few weeks ago with a breakthrough to the finals, but the odds are long
They always are. Fabio Fognini, who also beat Nadal earlier in the clay season (at Monte Carlo), is hungry for his first Slam. Nadal himself, to be sure, wants his 12th Mousequetaire trophy. It would be a record.
To reach it he must overcome the winner of Paire-Nishikori, and then he will be up against the winner of the much anticipated Tuesday match between the two mighty Swiss champs, Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer, the 2009 winner. The last time this happened, “Stan the Man” won, and eventually won the tournament, but this was in 2015, and since then he has had serious injuries and Federer has skipped the clay seasons. So while the knowns are known — they both have beautiful games and are Swiss and are resilient competitors — so are the unknowns unknown.
What is certainly known is that Wawrinka won the one match of this tournament, so far, that is going to be in the anthologies. For five sets over five hours yesterday, the man from Lausanne resisted and attacked the finest Greek player since Taki Theodoracopulos, the lean, hard, tall — six-four — fast, inventive serve-and-volleyer, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
In the fifth set, Tsitsipas had many chances to break Wawrinka’s serve, and he failed every time. (Over the entire match he won only five of 27 chances to break.) It was not surprising that, in the end, the younger man — 20 years old — saw the futility of fighting on.On serve at 6-7 and 30-40 (no tiebreaks in the fifth set), Tsitsipas sent a crosscourt deep into the ad side, rushed toward the net to cut off a return, and then watched as a Wawrinka down the line one-handed backhand flew right past him while he looked, sure it would go out of bounds. It was the last ball, and it hit the line, and it seemed the only one in five hours that Tsitsipas did not try to reach.
Correction: With apologies, the last American man to win the Coupe des Mousquetaires was Andre Agassi in 1999.