On Saturday, Serena Williams won Roland Garros to become the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win the first two majors of the year, pairing it with her Australian Open title. Her fellow No. 1 player in the world, Novak Djokovic is one match from doing the same, a title that would make him just the eighth man ever to raise the trophy at all four Grand Slams in his career.
It’s an incredible chance at history for Djokovic in many ways. A win on Sunday would get him halfway home to the true Grand Slam, winning all four events in the same season. Looking ahead a bit, a title in Paris also gives him a chance in the next couple years at joining Rafael Nadal and Mats Wilander as the only players in men’s history to win two Slams on each surface (hard, clay, grass).
Furthermore, sitting at eight total Slams for his career (five Australians, two Wimbledons, one U.S. Open), the 28-year-old can also put himself over the true dividing line between the game’s greats and its greatest, considering the likes of Agassi, Becker, Connors, Edberg, Lendl, McEnroe, Wilander and more all finished with eight at the most, while the sport’s holy quintet of Federer/Nadal/Sampras/Borg/Laver are all in double digits.
Having already defeated two of his fellow Big Four members in Nadal and Andy Murray, Djokovic is facing a non-Big Four opponent in a Grand Slam final for just the second time in 16 appearances. That player is Stan Wawrinka, a long-time member of the game’s second tier, who broke out in 2014 with his first major in Australia and his first Masters 1000 crown in Monte Carlo.
The tennis version of Joe Flacco or Rajon Rondo, Wawrinka has shown himself to be a big stage player. He has exited a startling number of events very early in the tournament, but his straight sets dismissal of Roger Federer, his countryman who’s overshadowed him his entire career, made him just the third player, joining Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, to have claimed victory over Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray at a major.
He has also taken Djokovic to five sets in their last four clashes at majors, all on hardcourts, with Wawrinka even prevailing in the 2014 Australian Open en route to the title. (An aside: the first three were high quality matches but the most recent, Djokovic’s semifinal win this year in Australia, was a crime against humanity.)
The head-to-head record in this matchup reads 17-3 in favor of Djokovic, but Wawrinka is one of the only players on tour, joined only by Nadal and maybe Kei Nishikori, whose best form goes toe-to-toe with the Serb.
His baseline level is below that of Federer or Murray, but those players, despite their greatness, are at Novak’s mercy, as seen in the two-day semifinal in which Djokovic’s 6-3, 6-3, 5-4 lead evaporated as Murray forced a deciding fifth set, only to have his hopes dashed when the world No. 1 raised his level enough to take the final set 6-1.
In making that match dicier than it needed to be, a Djokovic staple throughout the years, he forced himself into something of a gauntlet this week:
Tuesday: prepare to defeat Nadal for the first time ever at Roland Garros (0-6 prior) and snap a four-match losing streak to Nadal at majors
Wednesday: beats Nadal, handing him his second loss ever in Paris (70-2)
Thursday: mentally move on from that monumental win to gear up for Murray
Friday: nearly finish Murray but darkness/rain force a delay
Saturday: take the court on an off-day to complete the Murray win, then prepare for Wawrinka
Sunday: play for the third day in a row for a title he’s never won, with no guarantee of another chance should he fail
In more ways than one it’ll be an amazing accomplishment if he achieves it, but the strain, more mental than physical, could be a big factor on Sunday, especially since subpar mental performances have cost him victories over Nadal in the past at Roland Garros.
The overwhelmingly likely outcome is Djokovic in four sets, except I like the underdog’s chances here. Although he’ll have to finish the match swiftly (no one has shown the ability in some time to outlast Djokovic in a deciding set), I’m going with Wawrinka in four sets to alter the seemingly inevitable course of history.