It has been a breeze for Rafael Nadal so far at this year’s French Open – but a storm is brewing.
Even by the Spaniard’s ridiculously high standards at a tournament where he has won 78 of his 80 matches since bounding into town like a runaway bull in 2005, the way he has reached a 10th final has been astonishing.
The 31-year-old has not conceded a set and dropped only 29 games in six rounds – two more than Bjorn Borg’s 1978 record when he destroyed Guillermo Vilas in the final.
Yet standing in the way of Nadal becoming the first player in the professional era to win the same Grand Slam title 10 times today is a highly destructive Swiss – not 18-time Major winner Roger Federer but Stan Wawrinka instead.
Wawrinka was at his belligerent best against world No. 1 Andy Murray in a semi-final classic, striking 87 winners in a five-set duel on Friday that would have graced any final.
Wawrinka, 32, has won each of the three Grand Slam finals – including Roland Garros in 2015 – he has contested and possesses the kind of baseline firepower Nadal is yet to face so far in the past fortnight.
The last Grand Slam clash between the pair came at Melbourne Park in 2014, when Wawrinka beat a hobbling Nadal to claim his first Grand Slam title.
It was a breakthrough moment for the Swiss and three years on, there is little doubt the world No. 3 truly believes he belongs alongside the best and that when the stakes are highest, he brings it all to the court.
“Mentally I’ve become a different player,” Wawrinka, who has won three of his last six matches against Nadal, having lost the first 12, told reporters.
“When I arrive in a big match, it’s like closing, switching off everything in my body except my brain which I put in winning mode.
“Rafa’s track record on clay is amazing. He’s the best player we have ever had. To play Rafa on clay in the French Open in a final is probably the biggest challenge you can have in tennis.
“But I’m extremely confident about what I do. I know that mentally when I’m there, it’s difficult to beat me.”
Nadal, who tops the match wins list this year with a 42-6 record, including a 23-1 stretch on clay, knows the threat.
But with “La Decima” within touching distance and the chance to claim a 15th Grand Slam title after a three-year hiatus, it will take Wawrinka at his fiery best to halt him.
“Stopping him can be difficult, which means I need to make sure I don’t let him be in that position where he can hit hard,” Nadal said.
Whoever wins will go second in the ATP rankings – a three-year high for Nadal and a career high for Wawrinka.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE