June 7, 2015

Erasing the Past

A couple years ago I marveled at the performance of Italy's Francesca Schiavone, who'd lost her first round match at Roland Garros in 2009 only to come back and win the whole thing twelve months later.

And this year, perhaps more impressively, we saw two champions pull off similar feats and, maybe, create a little bit of history that's worth even more.

Maybe we shouldn't have been too surprised by what we saw in the women's final Saturday. After all Serena Williams was playing her twenty-fifth Grand Slam championship match compared to Lucie Safarova's first. Still the American powerhouse hadn't been her best over the last fortnight, losing opening sets in three straight matches and having to power through again in the semifinals against Timea Bacsinszky to get a shot at playing for a third crown in Paris. It was the most she's ever been tested at a Major -- and especially after her second round exit here last year, you couldn't help but think she might be in trouble again.

And Safarova took whatever opportunity she could -- from a set and a break down the suddenly-thriving Czech, who'd already taken out defending champion Maria Sharapova and former titleist Ana Ivanovic on the way, came back again to force a third set. She would ultimately fold, though -- Serena, as she so often does, found her best game when she was most under pressure and rolled through the decider to complete her own Grand Slam triple crown. Of course, as the top seed she was the on-paper favorite, but with the French Open being, by far, where she's had the least success, her triumph was even more significant. The win, moreover, gives Williams her twentieth Major trophy -- meaning she could tie Steffi Graf's record twenty-two by the end of the year. And the way she's playing it's hard to put that past her.

Stan Wawrinka's comeback over the last two weeks may be even more surprising -- not only did the world #9 lose in the first round last year, but the former Junior champ had never made it out of the quarterfinals in the Paris main draw. Even after his surprising win over Roger Federer this year, he was by far the underdog in Sunday's final. Novak Djokovic, after all, had dethroned the king of Roland Garros just a few days earlier and surved a squeaker against Andy Murray in the semis. Add to that, Nole had the motivation of a career Grand Slam on the line and a more-than-intimidating 17-3 record against the Swiss #2.

But Wawrinka did not flinch -- after losing the first set he was actually able to raise his game, taking advantage of a seemingly tired opponent to grab a late break in the second and then pulling off some of the most amazing shots of the tournament to race ahead. Even when Djokovic looked reinvigorated in the fourth set -- he'd won the first three games of the set -- Wawrinka managed to draw even and then saved a handful of breakpoints and eventually pull ahead. After a little more than three hours of play, he converted his second championship point of the match and won his second Major title against a hugely favored foe. His win not only keeps him a perfect 100% in Grand Slam finals, but may have established a Rafa Curse, suggesting that whoever beats Rafael Nadal in Paris, cannot ultimately win in Paris. But for Stan himself, he certainly proved he's no one-hit wonder.

Maybe the crowning of some of this weekend's champions was more surprising than that of others, but seeing two players who had such disappointing showings here just last year come back oh-so-much-stronger in 2015 is pretty darn impressive. And in case anyone allowed themselves to let their guard down against either -- they've all been served notice that both are back and better than ever.

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