There’s a moment during each Stan Wawrinka backhand when time seems to stop for everyone but him. The ball sits motionless, and the fans stare idly while he coils, and prepares to unleash. His backhand—a one-handed affair that elicits as much joy in slow motion as it does at full speed—is a shot that can change the dynamics of a point. It is violent, and stunning, and over in an instant.
Over the course of a winding career that saw him ranked as high as no. 3 in the world, Wawrinka has used that shot to claim titles and top the world’s best. The modern game focuses on a booming serve and forehand combination, but for years, Wawrinka was able to hold off the heavy hitters with his backhand, reaching the Roland Garros finals as recently as 2017. But a knee injury that ended his season, and more knocks that spilled over into 2018, forced him out of the top 250. The man who reached seven major semifinals in three years couldn’t escape the third round in six consecutive slams.
But something has seemed different over the past few days at Roland Garros. His vaunted backhand is showing life once again.
The passing shot is one of the most difficult in tennis, and Wawrinka’s opponent in Sunday’s round of 16 match, world no. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, is a man who stands 6-foot-4 and looks like he could plausibly volunteer as a missile defense system when he is at full extension. The Greek 20-year-old already reached a major semifinal earlier this year in Australia, and seems poised to make a number of return trips before his career ends.
Often, when Tsitsipas crashed the net against Wawrinka, he was rewarded with a finishing volley, or a setup for a smash. But occasionally, the ball spilled to Wawrinka’s backhand, leaving him with no choice but to come through it in full and win the point with one stroke. He didn’t disappoint.
After more than five hours, and just as many grueling sets, the 34-year-old Wawrinka emerged victorious—7-6 (6), 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6. It was as breathtaking a performance as any the Swiss maestro has delivered before. As a reward, Wawrinka will meet his countryman, Roger Federer, in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. It will be their 26th meeting as professionals, dating back to 2005. Of the previous 25 matches between them, Wawrinka has bested Federer only thrice: first, in 2009 on clay at Monte Carlo, then again at the same venue in 2014 in the finals. And then finally, in the Roland Garros quarters in 2015.
In a way, their shared history on clay makes sense. The surface has historically given Federer fits. But the dusty red courts are where Wawrinka has found his greatest success. Thirteen of his 29 career finals appearances have come on clay, as have seven of his 16 titles. Twice he’s made the French Open final; in 2015, he bludgeoned both Federer and Novak Djokovic en route to the title. And still, Federer holds a 4-3 advantage over him on the surface.
When tennis fans speak of Andy Roddick, they often do so with a sort of wistful tone. If Andy didn’t play at the same time as Roger and Rafa, he’d have 10 titles instead of one. The same rarely happens in conversations about Stan, largely in part because he shares a flag with Federer. Roddick was the Texan with a booming serve, an All-American game; the literal and metaphorical flagbearer for a country’s fleeting past glory. Stan is just the other Swiss player. Federer will always be the record holder, and the poster child, and the inarguable GOAT. What solace can be found in having the world’s prettiest backhand when the guy next door has the world’s prettiest everything else?
Since 2004, 61 grand slam tournaments have been played to completion, and only five men outside of the Big Four can claim to have won one. And of those, only Wawrinka won more than once in the time frame. His three slams—the 2014 Australian Open, the 2015 French Open, and the 2016 U.S. Open—put him on even footing with Andy Murray; the weakest member of that fabled top tier, but a member nonetheless. And still, Wawrinka is not spoken of as a potential constituent of the fearsome foursome, but as a gate crasher.
Some of it has to do with how he looks. Rafael Nadal looks like the meathead in the corner of the gym grunting through every deadlift rep. Roger Federer caries a natural grace, seemingly floating from stroke to stroke; the human embodiment of Ali’s bee. Stan runs. He swings. He grunts. Nothing looks effortless, just as nothing looks like the product of overwhelming effort. It is not work. It just is. When he turns to unleash his backhand he does so with the understanding that what he is about to do cannot be replicated by any other player in the world. And yet, he’s the uninvited guest who just won’t leave.
There is no outcome from Tuesday’s match that will change Wawrinka’s place in tennis history. No amount of jaw-dropping winners or crisp one-handed backhands that will allow him to supplant Roger as Switzerland’s premier athlete, or thrust him into the upper echelon of the sport’s record books. But Wawrinka’s legacy isn’t diminished by the fact he hasn’t matched his peers’ fame or fortune. It’s enhanced by it. Here stands the man who bullied Rafael Nadal in a grand slam final, and did the same to Novak Djokovic twice. The man who broke through tennis’s supposed ceiling for non-immortals, and who, at 34 years old, could very well do it again.