PARIS: It has been a breeze for Rafa Nadal so far at this year’s French Open – but a storm is brewing.
Even by the Spaniard’s ridiculously high standards at a tournament where he has won 78 of his 80 matches since bounding into town like a runaway bull in 2005, the way he has reached a 10th final has been astonishing.
The 31-year-old has not conceded a set and dropped only 29 games in six rounds – two more than Bjorn Borg’s 1978 record when he destroyed Guillermo Vilas in the final.
Yet standing in the way of the Mallorcan from becoming the first player in the professional era to win the same grand slam title 10 times is a highly-destructive Swiss; not 18-times major winner Roger Federer but the barrel-chested Stan Wawrinka.
Wawrinka was at his belligerent best against world number one Andy Murray in a semi-final classic, striking 87 winners in a five-set duel that would have graced any final.
Late bloomer Wawrinka, 32, has won each of the three grand slam finals he has contested and possesses the kind of baseline firepower Nadal is yet to face so far in the past fortnight.
Described as ‘scary’ by three-times former grand slam champion Mats Wilander, Wawrinka will not be taking a backwards step when play commences on Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday when the temperatures are expected to soar into the 80s.
Should Wawrinka repeat his scintillating 2015 victory over Novak Djokovic he would become the oldest man to lift La Coupe des Mousquetaires since 34-year-old Andres Gimeno in 1972.
The last grand slam clash between the pair came at Melbourne Park in 2014 when Wawrinka beat a hobbling Nadal to claim his first grand slam title.
It was a breakthrough moment for the Swiss, but even then there was a sense he still felt like an imposter at the top table of men’s tennis.
Three years on and there is little doubt Wawrinka truly believes he belongs alongside the best and that when the stakes are highest, he brings it all to court.
“Mentally I’ve become a different player,” Wawrinka, who has won three of his last six matches against Nadal having lost the first 12, told reporters.
“When I arrive in a big match, it’s like closing, switching off everything in my body except my brain which I put in winning mode.
“Rafa’s track record on clay is amazing. He’s the best player we have ever had. So, of course I can lose but I’m extremely confident about what I do. I know that mentally when I’m there, it’s difficult to beat me.”
Nadal, who tops the match-wins list this year with a 42-6 record, including a 23-1 stretch on clay, knows the threat.
But with La Decima within touching distance and the chance to claim a 15th grand slam title after a three-year hiatus, it will take Wawrinka at his fiery best to stop him.
“It’s true that when he hits hard, he hits really hard,” Nadal said. “Stopping him can be difficult. I do not want him to play his game, which means I need to make sure I don’t let him be in that position where he can hit hard.
“I will have to do everything I can to keep him from playing aggressively. If I can play long balls, if I can hit hard, if I can do that, well, I think I will be able to control him.”
Whoever wins goes second in the ATP rankings list on Monday – a three-year high for Nadal and a career high for Wawrinka.