Who doesn’t cheer Frenchman Gael Monfils as he stretches for a forehand, his body parallel to the court, or as he scrambles and slides into a drop shot just in the nick of time? No one. He is a brilliant athlete. The best on tour, according to Roger Federer and his former coach Paul Annacone, who echoed that sentiment Saturday as he called the third-round match between the 14th-seeded Monfils and French wild card Antoinne Hoang.
Yet, Monfils’ athleticism conflicts with his results because, for one, he has been injured frequently and, at times, has seemed to lack the necessary perseverance and will to do what it takes to win. “La Monf” is his own man, after all. He’s a hero to fans and pundits when rocking the court, and damn the consequences when he’s not.
But what about this French Open? Can we expect him to continue his 3-round streak of 3-set match wins? Yes… so far, so good. He advanced to the second week with his victory Saturday. Next up, 2018 runner-up Dominic Thiem.
No Fenchman has won Roland Garros since Yannick Noah in 1983, a dry spell that surely disappoints the French, especially with their deep collection of competent players. France is ranked number one by the ITF in Davis Cup, having won 10 and finished second in 9. Although this international competition doesn’t reflect the individual nature of a major, it’s evidence that French men are capable of winning. So why not at their own major? And why not Monfils, the athlete, or Jo-Wilfred Tsonga or the youngster Lucas Pouille, the latter two out of the tournament?
Nerves, they say, are a horrible thing. When the French play in front of the French crowds some bell goes off in their heads. It’s a dissonant sound, from what history tells us, and similar to what many Australians have heard trying to win their major in Melbourne.
Monfils was the top-ranked player from France coming into this Grand Slam: No. 17. He’s the only one left in the men’s singles draw, representing his country. He’s 32, aging along with all the higher seeded players in Paris. Tsonga, at 34, has had a miserable season due to injuries and lost the first week to Kei Nishikori. Tsonga, though, has a better record in Paris. He reached two semifinals to Monfils’ one, yet neither has reached the last Sunday. Blame Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Thiem, if you will. The fact remains, France needs a champion and the expectations laid on Monfils shoulders will be weightier as the days move on.
On Monday, Thiem will stand across the net from Monfils. The winner will advance to the quarterfinals. Thiem is the 2018 defending finalist and a mighty foe. Monfils has “beaten” Thiem once by walkover in their head-to-record, in Doha in 2018. This spring, at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., Thiem won by walkover. The four times they played, Thiem won, but that’s a small sample size. Can La Monf beat Thiem, one of the potential winners of the tournament right up there with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic? Of course. There is no way to deny that outcome.
In 2014, at the Davis Cup finals in Lille, France, Monfils’ sublime performance in an upset win over Switzerland’s Roger Federer in straight sets is a case in point about the potency of the Frenchman’s game. Although Federer’s back was not tip-top, Monfils’ concentration, shot selection and enthusiasm were nothing less than perfect. Monfils probably would have won regardless of Federer’s ailment, especially in front of over 27,000 people on a home court.
Monfils characterized that match as “one of the top three in my life,” according Davis Cup. The win was his first over Federer on red clay as well.
Again, if Monfils can rev up his athletic skills to that level in front of 27,000 fans for Davis Cup, why not at the French Open? Some indications are positive that he might possess the necessary inner calm to pull off the win over Thiem. Monfils told Reuters earlier this week that Elina Svitolina, his girlfriend, “was a positive factor” in the tournament, adding “but arguably not as important as the role of his coach Liam Smith.” The two have been working together since the beginning of the year.
A new coach. A solid relationship as well. Three 3-setters. It sounds as though Monfils has all his ducks in a row. The question is, dare France hope?