Gael Monfils is a tragedy in the real sense. He lifts hopes then disappoints. A brilliant athlete and masterful tennis player, he seems to willfully misdirect his talents. Nonetheless he is loved, fans willing him to a win as their hearts, full of yearning, beat in anticipation.
Yet once again on Saturday, Monfils shattered illusions, squandering four match points in a topsy-turvy five-set thriller inside a packed Court Suzanne-Lenglen. He lost to David Goffin, 6-7(6), 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.
“Quite the Davis Cup atmosphere,” the TV commentator yelled on Tennis Channel, his excitement piqued. “Belgians have come over the border, but Monfils has been controlling things here.”
This was in the fourth set, when Monfils had his sights on a spot in the round of 16, close to the finish line.
“He [Goffin] couldn’t put the volley away and sets up match point,” the commentator noted at 5-4 in the fourth. “Monfils with two opportunities to finish off the match.”
Goffin struck back. He stood inside the baseline, a risky spot because it leaves no room for error. But he was trying to take time away from “La Monf,” as Monfils affectionately named himself years ago.
“I tried to play it [match point] as if it were any normal point,” Goffin told the press later. “I knew I was playing well at the end of the fourth. It was close. I thought that if I really hung in, I can manage to turn this situation around at 5-all.”
Another match point. The crowds went crazy. Their Gael was going to do it, for the country … Vive la France.
A sigh echoed across the court. Goffin had scrambled to the net from behind the baseline, a trip most people take on a bus, getting there in a slide of red dirt to artfully hit a severely angled crosscourt forehand putaway. Deuce. Goffin was alive, odds rising in his favor.
“Time violation,” the chair umpire said to Monfils.
He’d been gasping for air after every point, closing in on the 25-second rule barrier. Then he overstepped the bounds. He wasn’t going to take it and walked toward the umpire to argue while catching his breath. This is the Monfils who aggravates. With momentum on his side, he blew out of the match mentally and put himself in that risky position of needing to get back on track.
“I saw him go to the umpire,” Goffin continued. “Now that he had got his warning, I thought that he had to play. I thought it was game point and that we’ll go into explanations in the changeovers. Yesterday [when the match first started] he was going too fast and today he was going too slow and the umpire gave him a warning. And that was it.”
Boos filled the stadium, Monfils was in the doghouse. Goffin had tied the fourth, 5-5.
“I tried to save all the match points with courage,” Goffin said.
He reeled off the next two games, as a rattled Monfils tried to recover. He couldn’t and didn’t, carrying the grievance of the time violation to the changeover. He confronted Goffin, the two less than a foot apart.
“I know Gael very well and I know how he can act on court,” Goffin began.
Tennis is not a combat sport, but the chair umpire had to separate the two at the changeover, Monfils ranting on about the time violation and the pace of Goffin’s play.
“Sometimes he uses the public,” Goffin began. “Sometimes he’s tired. It’s very hard to manage because here in the French Open he does everything to win. I knew this in advance. I tried to remain calm. Today it was paying. He could have won.”
Goffin’s brilliance, his ability to hang around, to lurk until the opportune moment presented itself.
In the fifth the clay parted for Goffin. The smallish (under six feet, shorter than the towering Monfils), smart and artful man, who slowly but surely has worked his way to the top 10, elevated his performance level while cutting unforced errors that had plagued him earlier in the day.
Goffin deserved this match, a reward after two recent freakish accidents sent him to the sidelines in the previous 12 months. Last year at Roland Garros he slid to return a lob as his foot got caught in a tarp in the back of the same court he played on Saturday. He twisted his ankle badly and left Paris, missing the grass season. Then, in February, a ball ricocheted off the frame of his racquet in Rotterdam and caught him squarely in his left eye. He missed Indian Wells and lost early in Miami.
“His pupils remained unevenly dilated,” The New York Times reported.
Goffin recovery took time. He “wore a contact lens in his left eye, and did exercises to strengthen the muscles behind the eye, as well as to practice his eye’s ability to zoom and focus.”
You could see that Goffin’s confidence had reemerged. There he was on the court of his demise from last year, standing close to or on the baseline, his preferred spot on a tennis court.
“He’s one of the fastest players on tour,” Alexander Zverev said of Goffin in Rome. “He barely produces errors and finds a way out of difficult positions to make life tough on the opponent.”
Zverev’s observation perfectly illustrated Goffin’s performance on a sunny Parisian afternoon. His steady climb in the rankings is not an aberration.
In 2012, in his first French Open, David Goffin entered the main draw as a lucky loser. He fought his way to the fourth round only to meet his hero, Roger Federer. Many will remember the match not because Goffin won, but because of a drop shot he feathered back over the net. Federer was left off balance. Fans awarded Goffin praise, cheering madly for the underdog. He responded to the accolades, bowing to the four sides of none other than Court Suzanne Lenglen. Federer, per his usual stoicism, did not smile. He went to work, sending Goffin home to Liege, Belgium.
France was the big loser on Saturday. Monfils was one of two French ATP players who remained in the draw. Pierre-Hugues Herbert later lost to ninth-seeded John Isner. No male player from France — the host of the tournament — will be represented in week two of Roland Garros.
Goffin knew how tough it was to play against the crowd, not just Monfils.
“It’s a win to play against Gael in his country, facing a public that is 100 percent against you, and that kind of an atmosphere where it’s physically tough, where it’s tough on your nerve and trying to remain in the match when you’re five and one [head-to-head],” Goffin said. “Yes, it’s really good to win a match like that.”