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.”
Images source – John Anthony/ISPA/Tennisclix
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.
At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.
“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.
Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.
Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.
We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.
Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.
The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.
More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.
Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.
Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.
Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.
In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.
The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.
The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.
In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.
We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.
Testigos de la grandeza
Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.
Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)