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Wawrinka and Murray: similar histories, but it was all Stan on Sunday

In what was billed as an intriguing matchup between a pair of three-time Grand Slam champions, 16th-seeded Stan Wawrinka kicked off his 2020 Roland Garros campaign by giving his good friend and longstanding rival, Andy Murray, a brisk and thorough lesson in contemporary clay-court tennis. Over the course of one hour and 37 minutes, Wawrinka hit 42 winners, to only ten for Murray, and earned a comprehensive 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 victory.

Wawrinka’s set of tools was a far better fit for this occasion, if for no other reason that what contemporary clay-court tennis demands: significant racquet head speed. This has always been a Wawrinka trait, and he’s always possessed more of it than Murray, who is more of an adroit counterpuncher than forthright attacker. With the match beginning just before 6:00 p.m. on a dreary day, the thick conditions—cold, drizzly, dark—greatly widened the gap between power and guile. So chilly was it that Murray played with long leggings and Wawrinka wore an undershirt.

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From the start, Wawrinka took command of the rallies. On their good days, you could consider these two players equals in the backhand department, Murray versatile and reliable with his rock-solid two-hander, Wawrinka armed and dangerous with his powerful one-hander. But the difference in forehands is significant, particularly on clay, and amplified so tonight. 

On a great many points, Wawrinka’s forehand generated far more depth, pace and precision. Scarcely disrupted by Murray, Wawrinka often flattened it out and ripped an untouchable down-the-line drive. It was uncertain what Murray could do other than to hang in rallies long enough to coax errors, particularly since his serve betrayed him all match long.    

“I served like under 40 percent first serves in the court, which that’s just not good enough, really, against anyone, and especially someone as good as Stan,” said Murray. “You want to be serving in the 60 percent, that sort of region. And, yeah, you won’t see many players serve under 40 percent the rest of the tournament. That’s just not good enough.

“From there, that kind of allows whoever you’re playing to kind of dictate more of the points. Yeah, that was clearly what happened out there tonight.”

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Here too, the impact of the clay, adding weight to the ball, did Murray no favors. 

“Those conditions I can still play heavy with my game from both sides,” said Wawrinka. “So I use those tough conditions, heavy conditions, slow conditions to still play powerful tennis. . . I know I can be aggressive. 

“I know I can put some heavy balls out there, and I can keep playing heavy balls each ball.” 

This was the 21st time these played one another. Though Murray led the rivalry 12-8, the more telling data point was that Wawrinka had won four of five on clay, including a five-set 2017 Roland Garros semifinal that had the unfortunate effect of physically derailing each player: the Murray hip, the Wawrinka knee. An even larger factor was that while Murray’s best effort in Paris was a runner-up showing in 2016 (highlighted by his only clay-court win over Wawrinka), the man from Switzerland is a past champion. That title run featured some dazzling power tennis, most notably when Wawrinka upset Novak Djokovic in the finals. Recalling that win today, Wawrinka said, “I think it was close to perfect from my side of view of tennis, because I was playing my best level.”

But that was more than five years ago, a long time in any sport, a half-decade during which Wawrinka and Murray grappled with injuries that took each to triple-digit rankings. Ranked as low as No. 263 in the world in June 2018, Wawrinka has inched his way back, with hopes that the hard work he’s put in during these pandemic months—including deciding not to play the US Open—will do him well at this year’s final major, no matter what the conditions dictate. 

“I always enjoy to play in front of people, especially here at the French Open,” said Wawrinka. “Always enjoy when it’s packed. Yeah, today it was different. We always have to adapt. It’s different time of the year also.

“It’s been not the easiest conditions to play when it’s cold like that, but as I say, I think we can be happy to be playing the French Open.”

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