Tennis spotlight

Window opens in Paris for Wawrinka

Andy Murray is skipping the French Open with lower-back problems. Juan Martin del Potro withdrew on Wednesday because of a respiratory virus. So, who is left to challenge defending-champion Rafael Nadal, top-ranked Novak Djokovic and third-ranked Swiss star Roger Federer?

Keep an eye on Stanislas Wawrinka, the less-celebrated Swiss, who is on a roll the past six weeks. Barring a flare-up of a torn thigh muscle, “Stan the Man” could pull off some big surprises at Roland Garros.

He hired Magnus Norman as his coach in mid-April, and since then, Wawrinka crushed No. 2 Murray 6-1, 6-2 in Monte Carlo, beat then-No. 4 David Ferrer in the Portugal Open final and reached the Madrid Open final with wins over Grigor Dimitrov, No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 6 Tomas Berdych.

His nine-match win streak ended with a loss to Nadal in the Madrid final, but he jumped to No. 11 in the world rankings and is on top of his game.

It appears linking up with Norman was a good idea. He is, after all, the same coach who helped Robin Soderling to two French Open finals and a historic Roland Garros win over Nadal, who has lost only one match there since his debut in 2005.

There were signs in January that this could be a breakthrough year for Wawrinka. He took Djokovic to a thrilling five-set match in the fourth round at the Australian Open. He has been on the cusp of the elite group for a few years and finally seems to have his mental game up to speed with his physical talent.

The only question now is whether he will be healthy. He retired with a thigh injury during the Italian Open.

“There is a risk that I will not be able to play Roland Garros,” he told Swiss media this week. “The situation is not easy to live with. I’ve not touched a racket since returning from Rome. I have to decide something by Thursday. My mind is at the moment busy with recovery. I’ve not been doing anything else. I’ll know more when the results of more medical tests are returned.”

Murray also had a tough decision to make and chose to rest until the grass season. Clay always has been his weakest surface anyway. He has advanced to the French Open semifinal only once, in 2011. He won the U.S. Open title in 2012, his first Grand Slam title, and reached the final of the 2013 Australian Open.

“I love playing in Paris, but after seeking medical advice, I am not fit to compete,” Murray said in a statement.

The Scotsman said his back started bothering him in 2011, and he required painkilling injections.

Federer also has struggled this season. Over the past few months, he has been beaten by Kei Nishikori in Madrid, Julien Benneteau in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Berdych in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He reached the final in Rome and lost 6-1, 6-3 to Nadal. But ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale said: “Don’t write him off. We’ve written him off a few times in the past. … Check his record. He’s never anywhere other than at the end of a tournament. If you get to the semifinals, anything can happen.”

Tennis Channel commentator John McEnroe said of Federer: “It’s difficult for him at his age to go past like a Djokovic and Nadal to win something on a clay court. I think his best bet, as I’ve said for years, is Wimbledon. I would be amazed if he would be able to beat both those guys at the French. I think at this stage for him, if he got to the semis, it would be a solid result.”

The French Open begins Sunday.

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