When Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka were drawn to play each other in the first round of the 2020 French Open on Sunday, two old soldiers nursing creaking bodies and shared recollections of past campaigns prepared themselves for some familiar pain.
As Murray said on Friday about playing his fellow three-slam champion, “It would probably have been nicer to play someone different at the beginning, and potentially build your way into the tournament. But you win against Stan in the first round and it can open things up and make you feel much better as well. We’ll see what happens on Sunday.”
What happened the last time they met at Roland Garros – three years ago in a brutal five-setter the Swiss won in four and a half hours before losing to Rafael Nadal in the final – might be fading into history, but the experience left lasting bruises on both players. Murray would be hobbling in and out of surgery for the following two years to fix his failing hip and Wawrinka needed two operations on his knee. Neither has been the same since, although they are both still up for the fight as they approach their mid-thirties.
Over the course of their rivalry, Murray has won 12 of 20 matches, including the 2016 semi-final here when he went on to lose to Novak Djokovic in the final. It is the sort of rivalry forged between boxers of similar ability, one of respect and trepidation. It is unlikely either Murray, 33, or Wawrinka, 35, can recreate old glories, but they will give it the best they have left, and that should make for a fascinating encounter. They practised together here on Sunday; now it’s for real. Murray, at least, will relish the experience. Wawrinka, unusually, chose not to engage with the media.
“Look, I have to be realistic,” Murray said. “I’ve practised, like, for 10 days on clay in three and a half years. It’s normally not been my preferred surface. I’ve played well on it, had good wins on it, but it’s always been a surface that’s been harder for me to adjust to than the other ones. Maybe it doesn’t suit my game as well as the grass and the hard courts. So I need not to expect too much from myself, and go out and enjoy playing at the French Open again. Getting to play against Stan again, it’s brilliant.”
Murray picked up tendonitis in his left psoas muscle (which connects torso and spine and is crucial to stability and fluid movement) at the US Open, where he reached the second round. And, while waiting for a diagnosis, he used a week of isolation at home – after “a bit of an issue” with his Covid-19 test – to rest on his return to London.
“I had to adjust my training a bit,” he said. “But, once I started training on the clay, I actually felt pretty good. Maybe it will be different when I get on the match court, but I felt decent. Usually it takes quite a long time to get used to [clay] again. It didn’t feel like it had been a year since I last played on it. It was better than what I expected.”
Roland Garros has also been a place of highs and lows for Johanna Konta – and this year is no different as the British No 1 readies herself for one of the most intriguing first-round challenges in the women’s draw, against the American teenager, Coco Gauff.
Chris Evert does not give players a pass when she thinks they under-perform, and she was tough on Konta for two collapses last summer: in the French semi-finals, where the unseeded Czech Marketa Vondrousova bullied her to defeat, then at Wimbledon, where a more seasoned Czech, Barbora Strycova, played brilliantly to deny Konta a semi-final shot at an underdone Serena Williams.
“She froze,” was Evert’s no-nonsense judgment then. Now she sees 16-year-old Gauff – 13 years younger than Konta – as capable of doing to her what lower-ranked opponents did in four consecutive first-round matches at the French Open before she went on that run to the 2019 semi-finals.
Evert, a seven-time French champion and respected commentator on Eurosport, thinks the No 1 seed, Simona Halep, is the rightful favourite – but she says the field should be wary of Gauff, the eerily self-contained starlet who has already reached two slam quarter-finals.
“I say look out for Coco Gauff,” Evert said on Friday. “I know she’s had some losses and I feel like she’s feeling the pressure a little bit more this year than last year, but I still think she’s dangerous and I still think, when she’s playing pressure-free and relaxed, she could beat any of the top players.”
Konta is certainly that. She’s No 13 in the world and, at 29, should be at or near her peak. She does not lack for certainty in her preparation and has just parted ways with her sixth coach. However, anxiety can still strike her on court. As Murray would agree, memories can work in many ways.