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Stan Wawrinka needs more gas to stop Rafael Nadal racing to double figures

Stan Wawrinka

Roland Garros is where the Open era of professional tennis began in the fabled summer of 1968, when students took to the streets of Paris and Ken Rosewall picked up 15,000 francs, roughly £2,000, for beating his friend and rival Rod Laver in the final of the French Open.

Rosewall, who had been the youngest French champion at 18 in 1953 and then the oldest at 33, could have bought half a dozen houses in London with his winnings if he wanted to – although probably not around Wimbledon, where the All England Club matched the French purse in that year of social and political turbulence, joining the professional revolution and sending a definitive signal that the amateur sport had changed for ever.

When Rafael Nadal reaches for his 10th Roland Garros title on Sunday, and Stan Wawrinka tries for his second, the prize will be an altogether more stratospheric €2.1m, somewhere near £1.8m … at the time of writing. Turbulence is cyclical.

If life was simpler in 1968, the game was too. Coaches were what you arrived at the ground in. “We used to travel with each other, hit with each other,” Laver said. “That was as good as any coach.”

But Sunday’s final on Court Philippe-Chatrier, while resembling the collision of two small armies, should be every bit as significant and devoured with equal enthusiasm. Tennis in the 60s was played with different rackets and attitudes, perhaps, and had a different constituency but there would be no holding back change.

The Spaniard has been making history all of his career, much of it this year as he completed La Décima at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Now, he goes for the hat-trick of 10s at the place where it matters most – to him, his fans and loyal devotees of clay-court tennis.

There have been minor rumblings that the red dirt of Europe might one day be swamped by low maintenance hard courts – just as the treasured grass of Wimbledon was meant to be under pressure, which has forced a longer lead time on the preparatory tournaments to sustain the interest of the top players – as if millions of whatever currency were not enough.

The titles still matter, though, and Nadal is desperate to move on to 15 majors and to within three of the absent Roger Federer. The Swiss cannily gave the clay season a swerve after his lightning start to 2017 so he could be at his refreshed best for Wimbledon, still his best chance of adding to his collection of majors.

Clay might not have been a graveyard for Federer but, until the arrival of Novak Djokovic to make life uncomfortable for Nadal, it was always on his list. Not any more. There is a possibility that after his 36th birthday in August he will not play here again, although his sponsors would cringe in disbelief were he ever to say so.

For now, the stage belongs to Nadal and Wawrinka. Selecting a winner might seem straightforward, given Andy Murray stretched Wawrinka’s total court time for the tournament by four hours and 34 minutes to 15 hours and 20 minutes in a brave but doomed semi-final over five sets on Friday.

Nadal, meanwhile, has sailed through the fortnight in a minute over 10 hours. To get here he did not have to go past two hours in any of his matches until the second semi-final on Friday, when he crushed the sixth seed, Dominic Thiem, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0. Murray avoided the concluding bagel against Wawrinka but only because he fought like a starving dog in a final set of stupendous hitting by Switzerland’s highest ranked player.

Nadal insists, not with much conviction, that: “I don’t care about the games I lost or not, or sets or these kind of things. The only thing I care about is I have been playing very well during the whole event and I was able to win all the matches. That’s the only thing that really matters.”

Tell it to Murray, who operated at considerably more draining level and admitted his legs had gone in the end against Wawrinka. Quick wins do matter in seven, best-of-five matches – it is absurd to suggest otherwise – so the advantage is most definitely with Nadal.

However, Federer does not call his compatriot “Diesel” for nothing. Wawrinka has the genetic gift of being able to chug through a long campaign like a tank, never weakening and always potent. Some of his hitting off the ground against Murray was as hard as it is possible to strike a ball and the Scot, perhaps the best retriever in the game now that Djokovic has declined, could do nothing about the 87 winners that flew by him – and was equally grateful for the 77 unforced errors that came off Wawrinka’s some times impetuous racket.

He will not play any differently against Nadal. Nor will the Spaniard alter his game. He plays with more urgency, perhaps, all fast-twitch fibre and sweat, while Wawrinka will have his trigger ready to press on any given occasion. He will move to No2 in the world behind Murray if he wins; Nadal will stay in that slot if he lifts the Coupe des Mousquetaires again.

If confirmation were needed that history always wraps its fingers around our memories Wawrinka and Nadal are the first pair of finalists here aged 30 or more since 1969. The combatants then were 30-year-old Laver and the 34-year-old Rosewall. The younger man got his revenge that day. And the younger man this time, having lost to Wawrinka in their only previous slam final, the 2014 Australian Open, will probably do likewise on Sunday.

There was good and less good news for British tennis on Saturday. Ivan Lendl confirmed he had decided to go straight to London to prepare with Murray for his Wimbledon defence rather than return to Florida. But Dan Evans had to retire with a calf injury when leading Dustin Brown 6-3, 4-2 at the Aegon Trophy in Surbiton. “I don’t know [the extent of the injury] until I have a scan on Monday. Hopefully, it’s settled down a bit.”

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