'I never felt the same': Murray and Wawrinka's Paris reunion befits a great rivalry

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In a press conference at Roland Garros, Paris on Friday, Andy Murray’s face turned white. The three-time Grand Slam champion was so ashen-faced he appeared traumatised.

He was being asked about something that happened in that very place, seven years ago, that indelibly changed his career. A French Open semi-final, on Court Philippe Chatrier, against Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka, who he will meet again this Sunday in the first round of this year’s event.

After composing himself, he swallowed and recounted the hurt.

“During the quarter-final (against Kei Nishikori), I could feel something was bad. Even if you look at some of my results in the year leading up to that match, I’d lost multiple matches from two sets to one up,” he said.

“It happened here, against Stan, and my record throughout my career in that position was excellent. I was starting to have issues… I remember during the fifth set, really feeling like I was unable to move. I couldn’t sleep that night. I remember getting up, lying on the sofa in loads of pain,” he said.

“My hip never recovered. It was a shame, yeah.”

Murray serving to Wawrinka at the 2017 French Open (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

It ended up being Murray’s last major semi-final and the last match he ever played with a functioning, organic, right hip.

A few weeks later, he hobbled out of Wimbledon with the hip injury that ultimately required a resurfacing operation 18 months later.


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“That match I played against Stan a few years ago was a brutal one,” Murray said in 2020.

“I never felt the same after that match.”

Wawrinka told The Times of London on Friday that “it was a crazy, crazy crazy, crazy match”.

The Murray-Wawrinka story goes far beyond that meeting. Their careers are intertwined, especially at Roland Garros, where they met in consecutive semi-finals, in 2016 and 2017. Even without playing each other, they influenced each other’s destiny: in 2015, Murray dragged Novak Djokovic into a five-set semi-final that had to be played into the second Saturday of the tournament. He ultimately lost, but may just have blunted the Serb’s edge before the final that Wawrinka won in four sets the following day.

That pair of semi-final meetings and Murray’s contribution to Wawrinka’s title also demonstrated a dynamic that has defined men’s tennis for the last two decades. The best-of-the-rest might beat each other, but they often had one of three final bosses waiting for them after their exertions.

In 2016, Murray was the semi-final victor, only to run out of steam against Djokovic in the final. It was Djokovic’s fourth major title in a row and completed his career Grand Slam, adding a first French Open to his Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. The following year, Wawrinka beat Murray in five sets, but was powerless to stop a rampaging Rafael Nadal winning a 10th title.

Murray prevailed in 2016 (Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images)

In retrospect, Murray and Wawrinka’s victories felt pyrrhic given how much they took out of each player, and they play into a wider sense of futility: Even if you were good enough to get past a Murray or a Wawrinka, there was an even greater challenge waiting in the final.


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That Murray and Wawrinka each won three Grand Slams — beating Djokovic or Nadal in five of their six successful finals — is a phenomenal achievement, despite the nagging feeling that in any other era, they would have won many more. Wawrinka was the much more clinical of the two, winning three of his four major finals, compared to Murray’s 3/11 record. But the Swiss also only won one Masters title, compared to Murray’s 14 (plus the ATP Finals) — fuelling the idea that he was the ultimate big-match player, only really showing up at the slams. Or at the Olympics, where he won a doubles gold with Roger Federer in Beijing in 2008. (Murray has two singles golds).

Wawrinka has always insisted his career is not at the same level as Murray’s, and said on Friday that: “He’s clearly in a completely different league than me.” Wawrinka added that Murray’s consistency in reaching the business end of majors and winning Masters titles for so long makes him part of a “big four,” rather than the accepted Big Three.

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In total, Murray and Wawrinka have played each other 22 times, with the former leading the head-to-head 13-9.

This year’s meeting means that Murray will have played three matches in a row at Roland Garros against Wawrinka, with a first-round encounter in 2020 sandwiching the semi-final three years earlier, and Sunday’s match.

The first round four years ago was a largely forgettable, comfortable win for Wawrinka, but the 2017 semi-final remains a major pivot point in both player’s careers.

Murray had struggled with injury and a bout of shingles for much of the year, but in going toe to toe to with Wawrinka and reaching a Grand-Slam semi, the consensus, including from Murray, was that he had returned to somewhere close to his best.

Instead, as he said on Friday, he “couldn’t extend (his) hip behind (him) after that.” It contributed to him going out of Wimbledon to Sam Querrey that year, and the rest was pain, surgery, rehabilitation, and recovery.

It wasn’t just Murray’s last Grand Slam semi-final; it was also Wawrinka’s. He went out of Wimbledon in the first round that year, and had surgery of his own — on his knee — a month later that ruled him out for the rest of the year. He didn’t win another match after beating Murray in Paris until the 2018 Australian Open, and in the same year came a painful reminder of how tough both players had found the 12 months after their gruelling encounter.

Murray’s Eastbourne win was in the early stages of his comeback (Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for LTA)

By the sea in Eastbourne in June 2018, Murray was playing in just his second tournament after nearly a year out, and Wawrinka was clearly miles away from being fully fit. The Brit won 6-1, 6-3 in what was a strange, awkward encounter, a live-action illustration of the weathering of time and injury that erodes so many careers fittingly framed by the cliffs a few hundred metres away.

The following October, Murray won his first, and so far only tour-level title following his hip resurfacing operation in Antwerp, beating Wawrinka in the final. He described it as “one of the biggest wins I’ve had”. Most recently, they duked it out on the clay in France, but not at Stade Roland Garros — instead, at a Challenger event in Bordeaux, where Wawrinka won 6-3, 6-0.

And so to Sunday, in what is expected to be Murray’s final French Open. Wawrinka said last week that he doesn’t have any imminent plans to retire, but aged 39, two years older than Murray, the expectation is that this could also be his last Roland Garros.

If it is the last meeting between the two, it’s one to be cherished: a final duel between the fourt- and fifth-best players of the last 20 or so years. It has the feel of two old heavyweights slugging it out one final time, but however the match pans out, it won’t diminish one of the most significant men’s tennis rivalries of recent times.

(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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