Continuing our Season In Review series, ATPWorldTour.com looks at the third through fifth best Grand Slam matches of the 2017 season.
Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have been top contenders at the Grand Slams for years, and you’d expect the same knowing they were the first and third seeds, respectively, at Roland Garros. But neither star was in top form when they arrived on Paris’ terre battue this season.
The Scot was just 5-4 on clay heading into the second major of the year, and he was also trying to find his game after dealing with an elbow injury. “I came in playing garbage,” Murray joked after his quarter-final victory.
On the other side of the court, the 2015 champion arrived having won at the Banque Eric Sturdza Geneva Open. But he was 2-3 on clay in 2017 before that title.
So in a way, advancing to the semi-finals was a strong result for both players. But after Murray somehow snuck ahead with a two sets to one lead despite Wawrinka holding leads in each of the first three sets, it was the Swiss who reached his second Roland Garros final in three years with a 6-7(6), 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(3), 6-1 victory. (Read Match Report)
In the first few sets, Murray played jaw-dropping defense to stay in points against Wawrinka, using neutralising depth to turn defense into offense, especially in key moments. But as the four-hour, 34-minute clash wore on, Wawrinka’s power was overwhelming, and he fittingly ended it with a lasered one-handed backhand winner.
“I think it was mentally a tough battle today, especially in five sets against Andy,” Wawrinka said. “I’m happy with what I did on the court, the way I was fighting, even if I was down. The way I was trying to keep my line, trying to keep being aggressive, keep going even if I lost a lot of points by some incredible defense from him. But you know what’s happening when you play in a semi. You have to accept it. You just need to keep fighting and keep going for it.”
Wawrinka served for the first set at 5-3 and held a set point at 6-5 in the tie-break before losing it, and also led by a break on two separate occasions (2-0 and 4-2) in the third set before dropping five of the final six games to fall into a hole. But in the fourth set, neither player broke and all it took was one strong tie-break from Wawrinka to even the score and gain all the momentum and confidence he needed to run away with the match.
“I was one tie-break away from getting to the final when I came in really struggling. So I have to be proud of that,” Murray said. “Maybe the lack of matches hurt me a little bit in the end today. That was a very high intensity match. A lot of long points. When you haven’t been playing loads, you know, over four, four-and-a-half hours, that can catch up to you a little bit. So, I only have myself to blame for that, for the way I played coming into the tournament.”
Beating Rafael Nadal at a Grand Slam is never easy. Doing it at the same major twice in a career is even harder, especially right after the Spaniard won his 10th Roland Garros trophy and his third without dropping a set.
So it was no surprise that Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller did not cruise past the fourth-seeded Nadal after capturing the first two sets in the Round of 16 at Wimbledon this year. But it was a shock that in a marathon fifth set, it was Muller who prevailed to clinch this fourth-round battle 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13, his second win at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club against Nadal (2005). (Read Match Report)
In the first two sets, the crafty server dropped just six total points on his first delivery, and saved all three break points he faced. The 34-year-old took advantage of two of the three break opportunities he earned, and that was all he needed to take a commanding lead.
But Nadal, who had come back from two sets down on three previous occasions and at one point in his career won 13 of 14 five-setters, stormed back and won the third and fourth sets in a combined 80 minutes to force a decider. The Spaniard lost just eight points during that time and appeared back on track.
Yet after more than two hours and 18 games, it was Muller who came out victorious in the fifth set, advancing to his second Grand Slam quarter-final.
“It’s definitely one of the biggest, if not the biggest,” said Muller of the importance of the win in his career.
Inevitably, as you would expect from a 15-13 fifth set, both players had their chances in the decider, which was longer than the second through fourth sets combined.
Muller earned his first two match points on Nadal’s serve at 5-4. Little did he know that the set was not yet halfway over.
“I just told myself, Look, I mean, I’m doing the best I can. I’m playing well. Just hang in there and you’re going to get your chances,” Muller said. “Got a few of them. Didn’t take the first ones. But still kept believing. Yeah, somehow in the end I made it.”
After saving one break point at 6-6 and four more at 9-9, Muller would not face break point again. He converted on his fifth match point.
It was the fourth time that Muller, who would lose to eventual finalist Marin Cilic, had beaten a Top 5 player in the Emirates ATP Rankings. And all four of those victories came at a Grand Slam event, with both of his triumphs over Nadal occurring at Wimbledon (2005).
And while the result was a surprise, it was not like Muller came out of nowhere. Luxembourg’s star claimed a title on grass just weeks earlier at the Ricoh Open, and advanced to the semi-finals at The Queen’s Club in the Aegon Championships. Muller also won his first career trophy on the ATP World Tour at the Sydney International in January.
Only one player can win a tennis match. But in this Grand Slam semi-final, both competitors walked off the court with heads held high.
There was not much to separate the two players. There was even a span of 26 consecutive games without a break of serve. But throughout, both competitors were unafraid to step in and take a rip at the ball.
The pair split intense tie-breaks in the third (Nadal) and fourth (Dimitrov) sets, meaning they would play one set to reach the final, which would have been Dimitrov’s first at a Grand Slam.
After the 26-year-old escaped a 15/40 hole in the finale’s opening game, he regained his rhythm, being aggressive on the backhand side to help set up his forehand. And at 4-3, 15/40 on Nadal’s serve, the Bulgarian hit a solid return to push the left-hander back. But the Spaniard found some of his best tennis, hitting a backhand winner down the line later in the rally before saving his second break point with a forehand volley.
In the very next game, at 4-4, Nadal was at his stunning best. He claimed the decisive break with a backhand winner and that was the only advantage he would need to close out the classic.
“I think Grigor played great. I played great. So [it] was a great quality of tennis tonight,” Nadal said. “I think both of us deserve to be in that final. [It] was a great fight.”
And while the Bulgarian lost the match, he gained the confidence that would lead him to his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati and later in the year the Nitto ATP Finals trophy in his debut at The O2. Dimitrov went shot-for-shot with Nadal for nearly five hours, and if he would have found a way to claim one of his two break opportunities while up 4-3 in the fifth set, the match might have ended differently.
“It’s never easy to lose a match like that,” Dimitrov said. “For sure Rafa deserves pretty much all the credit right now since he’s such a fighter, such a competitor. At the same time it was an honour for me to play a match like that against him. It also shows me that I’m in a good way, I’m on the right path.”
Come back on Thursday for the Top 2 Grand Slam matches of 2017