Stan Wawrinka vs. Roger Federer may be the closest thing the ATP has to the match-up between Serena and Venus Williams. The two friends and Swiss teammates practiced together and ate lunch together in Monte Carlo on Sunday, then went out and fought each other in the final. It was the first match between the two since Wawrinka passed Federer for the top ranking in Switzerland earlier this year. Could he also pass him at the finish line and win his first title in the Principality before Federer won his?
Like Serena and Venus, Wawrinka and Federer know each other’s plays, patterns, and predilections as well as they know their own. Today each of them tried to come out of the gate and break one of those patterns. Federer opened with some serve-and-volley surprises; he knew that Wawrinka typically chips his returns from both sides. It wasn’t a bad idea: Federer kept him off balance, and finished 26 of 36 at the net. At the same time, Stan began the match pulling the trigger early and firing his forehand from on top of the baseline; he knew he couldn’t let Federer, who had won 13 of their previous 14 matches, put him on the defensive. But Wawrinka pulled the trigger a little too early; after dropping a few bombs, he stared to misfire. Down break point at 2-2, he sent a backhand long. That was all Federer, who was pounding his approaches deep to Wawrinka’s one-handed backhand, needed to run out the first set, 6-4.
In the past, the second set might have been academic between these two. But Wawrinka, aside from winning his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne earlier this year, had taken Federer to three sets in their last two meetings. He immediately began to turn things around in this one by breaking serve to start the second. While he gave that break back, the two stayed on even terms through the rest of the set. In general, good was followed by bad from each man: Wawrinka, who would grow less erratic as the afternoon progressed, finished with 33 winners and 34 errors; Federer, who would grow more erratic, finished with 21 and 38. Again, much like an all-Williams match, there was little momentum generated, or positive emotional energy on display. A disgusted Wawrinka was given a warning for cursing; Federer screamed at the court after an ugly miss.
But it was Federer’s error count that grew the fastest as the match went on. His three most important mistakes came in the second-set tiebreaker. At 0-1, he shanked a backhand wide; at 1-2, he shanked a forehand long; at 3-5, still with a chance to win in two sets, he sent another forehand long. Wawrinka let out a wail of relief; two points later, he closed out the set with his own surprise serve-and-volley play.
The momentum was in Stan’s hands, and he didn’t let it go. He broke Federer to start the third with a good forehand approach, and broke again at 0-2 with a crosscourt forehand winner. With Wawrinka up 3-0 and in a groove, the result now really did seem academic, but in Stan's favor. This was partly due to Federer’s body language down the stretch. At 0-2, he had a game point that would have kept him in the set, but Wawrinka won it with a running backhand pass—Stan raised his fist as Federer hung his head on his way back to the baseline. Federer's next shot was a weak, conviction-less backhand drop shot that barely reached the net. In his defeats in Indian Wells and Miami in March, Federer lost belief in the face of strong third-set play from his opponents. The same was true today.
Wawrinka closed out the win, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, for his first Masters title. Perhaps most impressive, he’s now 6-0 against Top 10 opponents in 2014. Is it too early to mention that the last man to win the Australian Open and French Open in the same year was Jim Courier in 1992? If Stan can beat Rafa in a Slam final, and Roger in a Masters final, can he pull off one of the few feats that has eluded them?