PARIS -- For Stan Wawrinka, the effect of seeing Rafael Nadal across the other side of the net with that Roland Garros clay under his feet was overwhelming. Wawrinka had a game plan coming in. He had beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam final before, after all -- and the Swiss had just produced his best tennis Friday to beat world No. 1 Andy Murray in the semifinals. But when they stepped out on Court Philippe Chatrier on a blisteringly hot Sunday, Wawrinka could not find the clarity he needed.
Should he pull the trigger early or trade blows with the best clay-court player of all time? In the buildup, both men had talked about the need to be aggressive, but it was Nadal who pushed Wawrinka around and pushed him into going for too much. Nadal was on a mission as he chased his 10th French Open crown.
"I think from the beginning from my side, for sure, I didn't play my best tennis," Wawrinka said. "I think I was a little bit hesitating with my selection of shots. I was always a little bit between [thoughts] for few reasons. One, because I play against him, and he puts this doubt in your head when you play against him because he's playing so well. And second, all the effort I have been doing last few weeks to get to my best level again, to get some confidence again, and to win all those matches, some tough matches."
In his three previous Grand Slam finals, Wawrinka has always found a way to play his best, clubbing those thunderous groundstrokes through the court. On clay, against Nadal, whose 10 French Open titles may only ever be beaten if he wins again next year, the indecision was deadly. Time and again, when Wawrinka did hit out, he missed, and when he didn't, Nadal was there to rip a winner after winner.
"On clay he's just tough to play," Wawrinka said. "There is always one ball coming back. There is always spin on the ball. There is always a different bounce than what the other player makes on that surface. He creates a doubt that you cannot have if you want to beat him. And on clay especially, because the way he's moving, it's even more difficult."
At 31, Nadal might have time to add to his French Open tally.
"For sure he's playing the best he's ever played, not only here," Wawrinka said. "I think since the beginning of the year, you can see he's playing more aggressive, staying more close from the line. That's clearly his best he ever played. That's why he's winning so much again."
Wawrinka won the title in Geneva on the eve of Roland Garros, an important win for his confidence after a poor clay-court season. Reaching the final here, despite the obvious disappointment of losing, was a major step forward, as he moves up to No. 3 in the rankings.
"Two weeks or three weeks ago, I was really down, not winning matches in Masters 1000, not playing my best tennis, a lot in doubt in my game when I was playing," Wawrinka said. "In three weeks, I won Geneva and made final of a Grand Slam, so that's big for me. That's for sure. But I will need few days to really see that, because it's tough to describe the feeling of losing a Grand Slam final."
He's not the first to experience it at the hands of Nadal in Paris. And he probably won't be the last.