Stanislas Wawrinka came into his first Grand Slam semifinal match today as an extreme underdog. (I made the case for that this morning.) For the second consecutive Slam encounter with Novak Djokovic, he nearly scored the upset.
As was the case with Andy Murray in Wawrinka’s quarterfinal match, Djokovic didn’t look like a top-three player, especially for the first hour or so. He dropped the first set 6-2, making way too many errors (18, against only six winners), and failing to take advantage of Stan’s complete inability to put a first serve in the box.
A few games later, the match turned even further in the direction of the Swiss. After a marathon, 18-point game at 1-2, Wawrinka saved three break points then won a couple of long rallies in the following game to score the first break of the second set. However, Wawrinka’s first-serve percentage caught up to him while Djokovic started to play slightly better tennis. Novak broke to even things up at 4-4, and both players continued to hold serve into a tiebreak.
In retrospect, that second-set tiebreak was the turning point. And if we had to isolate one point, it would be the one on Wawrinka’s racquet at 2-3, when he double faulted. He never got the mini-break back.
The Swiss only double-faulted six times in the match–not bad for a 331-point contest–but the rough patch in that second-set tiebreak was the first of three very important points he threw away with his serve. He double-faulted on break point in the first game of the fourth set, giving Djokovic a break he would never recover. And at game point, 40-30, at 1-1 in the fifth, he double-faulted to give Djokovic an opportunity at deuce.
That third game of the fifth set will go down in the record books. It lasted 30 points, progressing through twelve deuces. Djokovic had five break points, and Stan saved them all.
At the time, it felt like a turning point. After all, what else could a 12-deuce game be? Looking back, it was Wawrinka’s last hurrah.
It is remarkable that Wawrinka, playing against the best returner in the game, earned the result he did. He barely made half of his first serves, never topping 55% in a single set. It’s remarkable, either a testament to Stan’s ground game or an indication of Djokovic’s poor play today, that he won half of those second-serve points.
And by the fifth set, his ability to play on was increasingly in question. At 4-1 in the fourth set, Wawrinka left the court for a medical time out, getting a tape job on his upper thighs. He clearly wasn’t moving as well after that, though the results barely show it. Somehow he continued to fight Djokovic for every point. He took a few more chances–including some reckless ones–but continued to slug it out in plenty of long rallies.
But in the service game following the marathon hold, Wawrinka’s magic didn’t hold. He saved two more break points, but on the eighth chance of the set, Novak finally broke. There wouldn’t be another chance. From 3-2, Wawrinka continued to hold serve, but no game would reach deuce.
It was a great effort from the Swiss. Like his straight-set win over Murray, it is, one hopes, a sign of things to come. Save Nadal, Wawrinka has played as well as anyone this fortnight. He’s no young rising star, but in the few years remaining in his professional career, he deserves, at the very least, another shot at a Grand Slam semifinal.