It's the oldest lesson in the book, but one that bears repeating every now and then. In tennis, there's no substitute for or answer to the judicious application of superior power.
Say what you will about the marvelously balanced game and spectacular defense of top-ranked Novak Djokovic, or about the artistry and versatility of Roger Federer. Hats off to the grit of Rafael Nadal and the deviltry of Andy Murray. But none of them has a solution for what Stan Wawrinka at his best can do. None of them can beat a challenger who hits the ball hard enough, close enough to one line or another and has the guts and skill to keep doing it, over and over, no matter who the opponent or how big the stage.
We saw another great display of this fundamental idea by Wawrinka in the final of the French Open on the tawny, sun-kissed clay of the court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday. The Swiss, seeded No. 8, gave the tutorial, despite swirling winds and the presence across the net of heavily favored, top-seeded Djokovic -- a guy riding a 28-match winning streak.
Wawrinka won in four sets, shattering for now Djokovic's dream of completing his career Grand Slam. He blew Djokovic and his game to smithereens in a match that lasted 3 hours, 12 minutes, blasting twice as many winners as Djokovic (60 to 30).
This, from a 30-year-old who wears the ugliest shorts ever pulled on by a tennis pro, and in his case most assuredly one leg at a time. As Wawrinka himself modestly said of his place in the tennis firmament:
"I'm not as good as they are, I mean the Big Four. But I'm quite good enough to win two Grand Slam tournaments."
The reason, of course, is that surfeit of power.
We've seen this kind of thing before, both in individual matches as well as careers. Aussie Lew Hoad, an amateur-era legend, was revered for his easily generated but lethal power. Monica Seles played a minimalist game based on flat, very hard shots hit with both hands on the racket handle, aimed right at the lines. She was on the verge of eclipsing all-time Open-era Grand Slam singles champ Steffi Graf when a deranged Graf fan stabbed Seles in the back at a tournament in Hamburg Germany. Seles was never the same again.
Who can forget the way 20-year-old Marat Safin belted his way right through icon Pete Sampras and right into the US Open record books in the final of 2000, winning 6-4, 6-3, 6-3? Yet, it may have been Sampras' least painful Grand Slam loss, because Safin simply shot out the lights and Sampras was too realistic and respectful of a great performance to begrudge the youngster. He shrugged off the loss, later saying, "The guy was just too good. Everything he hit went in."
Djokovic felt much the same way Sunday. As reporters prevailed upon him to rationalize how he lost the match, he said: "In the end of the day he was just a better player. There was no reason to find some excuses why this happened."
Djokovic added, "He just played some really good tactical tennis and [he was] also very aggressive. All I can do is to say, 'Well done.' He deserves it."
If there was more to this story than the superiority of firepower, it's that Wawrinka put more of his first serves into play in this match than any other thus far in the tournament. His 67 percent success rate was nine points higher than his next-best day this fortnight, and it set him up to hit hard shots down the middle -- shots intended to keep Djokovic from opening up angles.
Wawrinka may not win another major, or maybe he will. But he has reminded us of something important these two weeks. In tennis, it isn't speed, or skill, or even guts, that kills. It's power.