Arguably the match of the tournament so far at Wimbledon prevented the top four seeds from lining up against each other in the semi-finals, with Frenchman Richard Gasquet overcoming Stanislas Wawrinka in five pulsating sets – 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 11-9.
After three disappointing quarterfinals, where Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Britain’s Andy Murray comfortably dispatched their opponents in straight sets, the match most tennis purists were looking forward to was the clash between recently crowned Roland Garros champion Wawrinka and 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist Gasquet, looking to make the last four for the first time in eight years at The Championships.
Dubbed ‘The Battle of the Backhands’, due to both players’ reputation for the quality and elegance of their single-handed shots off that wing, the match got off to a tentative start with both players holding serve until the seventh game. Wawrinka made a string of uncharacteristic errors to hand the break to 21st seed Gasquet, who did not blink, closing the first frame out 6-4.
Wawrinka promptly hit back, beginning to look more like the man that ensured Djokovic has to wait at least another year to complete his set of Grand Slams, racing out to a 3-0 lead. A mini-revival by the Frenchman to get back on serve did not deter the two-time Slam champion, who capitalised on two double-faults by Gasquet in the 10th game to level proceedings.
The megaphone at Court 1 announced that a tube strike in London meant the last trains would be leaving by 6:30, but with a captivating quarterfinal intriguingly poised, the overwhelming majority of the crowd preferred to stay on. They would not be left unrewarded for their loyalty as both players traded delicious rallies and jaw-dropping winners, particularly (and predictably) off the backhand side. It appeared the desire to show off that groundstroke as a superior one compared to the opponent was a little battle within itself. Wawrinka managed an early break and held on to inch ahead and take a two-sets-to-one lead.
Gasquet was by no means out of it, though. The Frenchman had, prior to today, only made two Grand Slam quarterfinals, but had never lost in the last eight, progressing to the semis every single time in five sets. If he was to extend that run, he would have to go the distance here.
Coached by Sebastian Grosjean, who appears to have imbued into his charge the mental toughness previously lacking in the Frenchman’s game, Gasquet dug deep. He held serve five times in a row without being threatened, and at 4-5, serving to stay in the set, Wawrinka blinked. Down break point, he committed his only double-fault of the match, sending the match to a fifth set – and the crowd into delightful frenzy.
One still felt Wawrinka had to be the favourite. He is a different player to the one he was even two years ago, and has handled pressure, disappointment and adversity deep in Slam tournaments in a way Gasquet hasn’t, simply because the underdog hasn’t been there often enough. It began to show when, 4-3 up in the final set, Gasquet played a scintillating game, converting break point by running the length of the court to guide a winner past a helpless Wawrinka. The match was on his racquet.
Gasquet, throughout his career, has found it much easier to play when nothing is expected of him. His lack of exposure in the second week of majors showed, when he played one of his most disappointing games of the entire match, an error-strewn six points that put the match back on serve, and, crucially, momentum fully in Wawrinka’s court.
As the match ebbed and flowed, shadows grew longer before the sun fully disappeared, half-chances arrived and were snuffed out, and the match crossed that magical boundary that sees it elevated from a thriller to a classic. Thanks to no tiebreak in final sets, the actual numbers in the fifth set became irrelevant. Gasquet simply had to hold, or Wawrinka would serve for it. If the Swiss got broken, his goose was cooked.
Moments of brilliance gave way to scrappy errors, betraying the intense pressure every point placed on the two competitors, before, in the 20th game of the set, it took a final, costly toll on Wawrinka. Three errors on his serve gave Gasquet as many match points, and though the first two were saved by sledgehammer serves by the Swiss, this one was a bridge too far. Wawrinka’s backhand crept over the line, and so, as a result, did Gasquet, the crowd rising as one to applaud two of the most captivating players off the court after a match that will live long in the memory.
They could walk back to their respective homes after that, and it would still be worth it.