French Open 2015: Mind over matter makes tennis the winner

Stan Wawrinka with this winning gesture shows why he emerged Champion at the 2015 French Open

Champions take their chances and pressure is a privilege – said the great Billie Jean King.

The 2015 French Open had everything to keep fans on their toes

Pressure! It not only sounds daunting but it stirs in us a sense of panic. It makes us sweat, go dizzy in the head, jangles the nerves, wrenches the gut, numbs the hands and as a result lands us in a soup. Sport is one arena where pressure comes at a huge price, whether you want it or not. Players who embrace it and use it to their advantage emerge champions. Those who wilt, no matter how great on sportsmanship, get tagged as chokers and fade into oblivion.

History is replete with examples of tennis players who choked when it counted the most. With time they matured and with the maturity came the ability to handle pressure. In the 1994 Wimbledon finals, Jana Novotna lost to pressure more than she did to Steffi Graf. Jana went from leading 4-0 in the third set to losing 4-6 to Steffi Graf.

The demons in her head pounded her belief and the voices of self-doubt so raucous that she could not hear any cheering – either from the crowd or from any inner cheer leaders of her heart. In 1998, she had befriended pressure and with that came the ultimate prize – the Venus Rosewater Dish.

The 2015 French Open that concluded yesterday was by far the most special edition in a long time. Not because of the favorites – Maria Sharapova and the King of Clay Rafael Nadal - being dethroned. But due to the sheer quality of the matches that punctuated the Grand Slam, both in the men’s and women’s draw. The quality of the matches were not due to the scintillating repertoire of shots that were on display but due to the heart that some of the great Champions had to put on a show so great that it made it difficult for the tennis fans to pick a winner!

Delivering an ace at a clutch point, executing a fore hand pass while down a break point, producing a drop shot with disguise on a set point and guiding a back hand down the line on a match point is about the mind as much as it is about technique. For one moment if the focus wavers a player could see his dreams fall like a pack of cards. There were more examples than one where pressure played its role in this year’s French Open and exemplary players who handled it well enough to go that extra mile.

Roger Federer after his win over Gael Monfils

Big players rose to the occasion

Roger Federer had set a goal for himself at the beginning of this season - to reach the Semi Final of the French Open. Last year, after being unceremoniously dumped in the 4th Round by Ernests Gulbis, the tongues lashed and the fingers wagged. It set a precedent of counting his exits from Grand Slams before the Quarter Finals. With Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray being in the other half of the draw, the prospect of him making a deep run in this year’s French Open started to mill around. A potential cog in the wheel in his part of the draw was Gael Monfils.


Having lost to Monfils in their two most recent meetings, the pressure was on Federer to prove himself. When there is Monfils, there is drama. Bad light decided to don a supporting role. The match had to be abandoned at a stage when it was equally poised with both players winning a set each.

This only increased the pressure on Federer as it would give Monfils more time to recoup after having played 5 sets in each of his previous two rounds. But Federer would have none of it. He came out firing on all cylinders the next day and took down Monfils. For Monfils the pressure of being the home favorite was the final nail in the coffin.

Novak Djokovic after his first win over Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros

The highlight of the French Open 2015 draw was the much awaited battle between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the Quarter Final stage. Nadal being seeded at No.6 seemed to augur doom for one of them before the Final. The stakes were high. While Nadal was seeking his tenth French Open, Djokovic was dreaming about his maiden title. Though Djokovic won the match in straight sets, it had glimpses of Nadal calling upon his mental grit and tenacity to make a roaring comeback from 4-0 down in the opening set to level the scores.


It was Djokovic who dealt with the pressure better as he did not allow Nadal to claw back further and shut the door on him by playing dominant tennis in the next two sets to beat Nadal for the first time ever at Roland Garros.

Andy Murray pumping himself up in his Semi Final against Novak Djokovic

Battle between two unbeaten men on clay this year

Andy Murray had been enjoying an incredible run on clay since his win at Munich. He won Madrid by beating Nadal on his home turf and reached the Semi Final at Roland Garros. In the Semi Final, he faced a familiar foe and nemesis Novak Djokovic.

With a bruising loss to Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open Final and a not so favorable head to head, Murray had an uphill task. After Djokovic raced through the first two sets, the inevitable loomed large. However, Murray had other plans. He seemed to have wiped his memory clean as he drew on his mental reserves to stop the rot.

Murray’s body language was positive and the clenched fists held more desire than ever. He turned the match on its head to win the third set and when it was even stevens in the fourth the match had to be abandoned due to an impending storm.


It was probably not the best thing to happen to Murray as he seemed poised to take the challenge to Djokovic who looked tired at that point in time. After the match resumed the next day, Murray prevented a sway in momentum and added to the joy of the french crowd by taking the match to a fifth set. Though he lost the encounter again, Murray raised eye brows as he was the first player to take two sets off Djokovic and show that World No. 1 was indeed vulnerable.

Stan ‘Wow’rinka with his maiden French Open title (June 7th, 2015)

Stanimal delivered yet again

The Men’s Final arrived and it arrived with a bang. After the first set, Djokovic looked formidable and on his way to clinching the Grand Slam that had eluded him. Wawrinka had beaten the great Federer on his way to the Finals. He would not give up without a fight. Stan also seemed to keep his mind clear of all the attention his divorce drew over the past few months.

With a dangerous concoction of power and finesse, he cooked a recipe for victory. Djokovic had no problems dealing with the spoons and spatulas that Murray and Nadal threw but was pushed beyond his limit by Wawrinka's kitchen sinks. After winning the second and third sets, Wawrinka had a lapse of concentration that saw Djokovic race to a 3-0 lead in the fourth Set.

Wawrinka pulled it all back together as he leveled the set at 3-3 and won the match by winning six of the last seven games. On his first match point, Wawrinka served down the T and Djokovic thought it was all over. But a late call from the lines person and a reconfirmation from the Chair Umpire proved that the serve had sailed wide.

Djokovic took advantage of this blip as quickly earned a break point on Wawrinka’s serve. It is in moments like these that Djokovic is most dangerous and this fact plays on the opponent’s mind. Wawrinka did well to keep a calm head, save the break point, earn a match point and gun down his final winning shot – a scorching back hand down the line – one of the many barrage of cannon balls hurled at Djokovic.

In the post-match conference, Djokovic said, “Every single player who is here, especially the top players, want to win this trophy as much as I do. I think that's something that we have to keep in mind. I'm not trying now to release the pressure for myself. Pressure is part of what I do. I got used to it. I had many tough matches in my life.”

When Wawrinka was posed a question on his mindset while being a game away from the title, he confessed, “I was really nervous that game, because I knew I was serving for the match. I was starting to think about the French Open winner, the trophy and everything. So I just tried to be focused. I saved a break point after that, and the thing is, I think I was doing the right thing. That’s the most important. That's the only way I can give myself some chance to beat the top guys.”

Serena Williams after her win over Lucie Safarova in the Finals (June 6th, 2015)

Serena fought her way to the crown

The women’s draw was no less interesting. Yes, there is Serena Williams and the rest of the players. But it is not easy being Serena Williams. Let’s rewind to last year’s French Open. She was outplayed by Garbine Muguruza in the second round.

In this year’s French Open, it was déjà vu for Serena, almost. In the second round, she was pushed to her limits by Anna-Lena Friedsam. Though Serena did well to progress to the third round, her woes did not end there. The next four of her remaining five matches, including the finals, were three setters. She contracted a flu before her Semi Final encounter against Timea Bacsinzky. During the match she looked depleted of energy and disoriented. In spite of that, she not only won the match but she bageled Bacsinzky in the final set.

After a good day’s rest, Serena looked unstoppable from the beginning of her final match against Lucie Safarova. After winning the first set comfortably against the tricky left hander, Serena was five points away from her 20th Grand Slam. At 4-1 and 40-15 up, Serena had a melt-down of sorts.

The prospect of winning a 20th Grand Slam and a chance to bolster her chase of Steffi’s 22 weighed heavily on her mind. She started serving double faults and hitting sloppy forehands. This allowed Safarova into the match and she was as cool as a cucumber. Safarova played jaw dropping tennis to win the second set in a tie break and quickly go up a break in the third.

Serena Williams with her 20th Grand Slam title, just 2 behind Steffi Graf and 4 behind Margaret Court

But, where there is a Will(iams), there is a way! Serena refocused, regrouped and brought back her A game. She reeled off 6 of the next 7 games to go past the finish line and win her 20th Grand Slam title. And her celebration was muted as compared to the one after winning her 19th at the Australian Open. No tuck jumps, no girly twirls, no clenched teeth. Her arms were up in the air and trying to feel that intangible force that had dawned on her when she wanted the most.


In both the men’s and women’s draw of the French Open, the mind triumphed over pressure for the Champions. Andre Agassi, in his book Open, mentioned a strange magnetic force that pulls you towards the finish line when it is in sight. And then the closer you go towards it, there is another force that pushes you back.

Both Stan Wawrinka and Serena Williams faced this force, embraced it, deciphered it and emerged victorious. He created history by winning his first title and she cemented her place in history as the Champion with the third highest Grand Slam haul. Djokovic and Safarova won a lot of hearts at Paris as they were so gracious in defeat and showed great sportsmanship in lauding their conquerors.

Federer, Monfils, Nadal, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Murray, Safarova and Williams all dealt with different kinds of pressure. It was quite unfortunate that there had to be just one winner. For tennis fans though, it was pure elation to witness each of their matches that were pulsating and of the highest quality. Many of them were probably in a quandary to pick a winner.

Ultimately, it was Game, Set and Match Tennis!

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