The Serbian top seed Novak Djokovic, winner of five tournaments including the first grand slam of the season in Australia as well as two clay court events in the prelude to the French Open; the world number one boasting of only two losses in 43 matches.
Opposing him - the Swiss eighth seed Stan Wawrinka, capable of destroying anyone on his day, but those days are erratic beasts.
Djokovic had more than the slight edge going into their 21st encounter. He had won 17 of their previous meetings. The last one was in five sets at the Australian Open in January. But in that match the fifth set didn’t really exist for the Swiss. He lost it 6-0.
And victory number 18 appeared on course after Djokovic won the first set in 43 minutes. It was 6-4 but from the outset – a 39 shot rally in Wawrinka’s opening service game – the Serb was on alert that there would be a battle royal for the spoils.
But Djokovic, who was seeking his first French Open title, to complete the set of trophies from all four grand slam venues, skirted with danger mid-way through the second set. He staved off four break points but when serving to stay in the set at 4-5 down, he cracked and it was honours even after one hour and 40 minutes.
The next 80 minutes of the Serb’s life will be analysed and reviewed as he ponders how he missed his chances. Wawrinka was the steadier man in the third which he won 6-3 but Djokovic had the keys to the fourth at 3-0 up.
“I had some chances to really switch the momentum to my side,” conceded Djokovic. “I probably could have played better in some moments, more aggressive. He just played some really good tactical tennis and also very aggressive shots in some break points, like at 4‑4 in the fourth, the winner - a passing shot down the line. All I can do is to say: ‘Well done. He deserves it.’
Fittingly for a player acknowledged to have the best one-handed backhand in the game, it was the stroke that brought him the trophy. Having squandered one match point, Wawrinka then had to negotiate a break point. A second match point came following a service winner and the trademark backhand down the line sealed the game after three hours and 12 minutes. “I’m pleased with the way I played and the way I finished the match,” said Wawrinka, who becomes the second Swiss man after Roger Federer to win Roland Garros. “I was focused all the match. I was happy with the way I changed the momentum.”
That was no mean feat against a Djokovic who appeared on a mission to become only the eighth man in the history of the game to win at the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Rafael Nadal, who already enjoys a place in that pantheon, had denied the Serb on two previous occasions in the final. Having disposed of the Spanish nine times champion in the quarter-final, the smart money was on Djokovic to finally join Nadal and Federer in the elite clique.
“It feels like I'm the only player who wants to win this trophy and nobody wants to win it as much as I do; this is completely untrue,” said Djokovic. “Every single player who was here, especially the top players, wanted to win this trophy as much as I did. I think that's something that we have to keep in mind. I went out onto the court knowing I'm close, but across the net I had also player that wanted to win.”
Wawrinka’s victory at the French Open follows his success at the Australian Open in 2014. Victory in Paris catapults him into a rare bracket too. Only he, Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl have won the French Open as a junior and senior - Wawrinka’s triumph came in 2003.
But the boy Wawrinka is now Stan the man. And yet he claims the 2015 title presented to him by the three times champion Guga Kuerten does not elevate him to the top players of the circuit – namely Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray. “I'm not as good as they are - the Big 4. But I'm quite good enough to win two grand slam tournaments. I can beat them in major tournaments, in a semi-final, in a final. But once again, the Big 4 will always be the Big 4. I want to make progress and I want to beat them. That's all. It is that simple.”
On his way to his 1.8 million euro payday, Wawrinka dismissed Federer in the quarter-final and Djokovic, two of his putative betters. “Last year I was among the favourites and I lost in the first round,” said Wawrinka. “I was not among the favourites this year but I knew that I’d played well. The players who are in front of me have always put in a good showing in the main tournaments.”
No matter how much he hides behind that volatility and protests, the reality is that Wawrinka is no longer in the one slam wonder club. Winning one could be considered fortunate, collecting two suggests more than a modicum of talent. "It's not luck at all," said Wall Street Journal tennis correspondent Tom Perrotta. "He's probably the most dangerous guy in tennis. You just never know what you are going to get out of Stan because when he is on he can beat anybody. He knows it and he's not afraid of anybody. The final against Djokovic was one of those days when eveything was clicking."
“I'm very surprised at the way I finished the fourth set," admitted Wawrinka who's just turned 30. "I was relaxed on my backhand side and I could hit some wonderful backhands.” He’ll savour the one on match point for the rest of his life.