What we learned: Wawrinka a slam giant

 - Dan Imhoff

Wawrinka survives Tsitsipas in five-hour thriller to set Federer clash.

Stan Wawrinka© Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

The grimace as Stan Wawrinka held his hands aloft said it all.

In a five-hour, nine-minute thriller, the Swiss was back in a Grand Slam quarter-final – two years after his last – having denied rising Greek sensation, Stefanos Tsitsipas.

In one of the finest advertisements for five-set tennis, the 2015 champion prevailed before a rousing Court Suzanne-Lenglen crowd, 7-6(6), 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6 to book a showdown with good friend Roger Federer.

Here’s what we learned from the third-longest match at Roland-Garros in 20 years.

Wawrinka a big-stage giant

Billed as the battle of the single-handed backhands, this match only surpassed what it had already promised on paper. Fourteen years separated the pair in age, but Wawrinka ultimately showed there were no longer any lingering fitness or form concerns as he stepped up when it mattered most.

The former world No.3’s big-match experience in the majors shone. He saved 22 of 27 break points, including all eight in a punishing fifth set. His only two break point opportunities of the deciding set came when presented as match points in the final game.

The Swiss curved a slice backhand passing shot down the line to secure the result, a shot which the Greek opted not to make a play on at net.

The Swiss loves a target

Time and again Tsitsipas worked his way into net on crunch points and more often than not, it was Wawrinka who found his mark with a crosscourt backhand pass to whip the Lenglen crowd into a frenzy. Barring his brilliant backhand passing shots, countless times Wawrinka was let off the hook thanks to makeable missed volleys from the Greek.

A crucial miss came when Tsitsipas dinked a half-volley into net with the Swiss serving at 4-4 in the deciding set and the biggest came when the Greek lunged for a second volley at 5-all in the fifth. A winner would have secured the break to serve for the match. Instead it found the net. And from there, Wawrinka prevailed.

Long-time rivalry renewed

The head-to-head ledger between the Swiss Olympic gold medal-winning pair reads a lopsided 22-3 in Federer’s favour but all Wawrinka’s victories have come on clay. Their most recent clash on the terre battue came at the same stage at Roland-Garros in 2015, when Wawrinka went all the way to collect the second of his three slam trophies.

“I have some bad memories against Stan in 2015. He beat me in three sets with his terrible shorts,” Federer joked. There was no one happier though to see his good friend back to his brilliant best after serious knee injuries.

“On clay it's been definitely more dangerous than on any other surface for me against him,” Federer said. “I think for a while there he wasn't sure if he was ever going to come back again. It's nice to see him pain-free and playing well.

"I hope he's not at the level of '15, but we'll find out because there he was crushing the ball. It was unbelievable.”

Youth no advantage

Tsitsipas would have become the youngest man since a 20-year-old Juan Martin del Potro to reach the Roland-Garros quarter-finals. Instead it’s Wawrinka, 34, against the 37-year-old Federer, the oldest Roland-Garros quarter-finalist since 1971. Federer’s older, sure. “But he’s quite better than me, also, so never forget that,” Wawrinka said. And what about this so-called second life Federer said his compatriot was enjoying since returning from knee surgeries? “A second life in what? I'm 34 years old. It's still my first life,” Wawrinka grinned. “I'm happy with it.”

French-speaking former champs adored

Hailing from the Swiss-French city of Lausanne, Wawrinka has long wooed Parisian crowds with his on-court artistry and with French as his mother tongue. The Swiss whipped the atmosphere into fever pitch on Lenglen at any available opportunity, blowing kisses and raising thumbs-ups to calls of “Je t’aime, Stan”, and raising his hand to his ear when working the crowd to his advantage before pivotal points.

It was a gauntlet he’d happily laid for his younger opponent. “I think I’ve never experienced that kind of atmosphere here in Paris on Lenglen,” Wawrinka said. “Always had a lot of support, but I think today was really special, and the match was amazing, five hours' match, five sets. The crowd stayed all the match.

“This kind of atmosphere, for sure … I enjoy a lot. That's the reason why I still play tennis, and that's the reason why I'm practicing every day to try to win big matches like that.”