The French sports daily L'Equipe gave Gael Monfils the moniker "roi du pétrole" (oil king) after his authoritative, straight-set victory over Rafael Nadal yesterday, but now that he’s suffered a 7-5, 6-3 defeat to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in their first-ever ATP final, it is clear that the latter Frenchman deserves the flowery nickname.
Monfils, who has now lost three of four career matches to Tsonga, did manage to draw first blood today. Relying on his legs to extend points, Monfils converted his second break point opportunity in the first game when a slow-starting Tsonga missed a forehand badly.
Then things went gloomy for a spell—quite literally. The thick, dripping wall of fog that had been hovering over the Khalifa International Tennis Complex throughout the warm-ups caused a 35-minute delay due to moisture on the lines. When the players returned to action, Monfils consolidated his early break by punching an acrobatic volley past Tsonga to go up 2-0.
The conditions seemed to favor Monfils in the early going, as Tsonga’s normally heavy groundstrokes had trouble cutting through the thick air, giving Monfils ample time to do what he does best—run down balls and force longer rallies. But after a subdued start, Tsonga came to life. Two soft errors by Monfils while serving for the set at 5-4 gave Tsonga a window at 15-30. One point later, he sealed his first break of the match while flying through the air for a signature overhead smash.
After an easy hold, a clearly inspired and more aggressive Tsonga went for the jugular in the 12th game. With Monfils serving to stay alive, Tsonga broke at love, hitting two bedazzling forehand winners from behind the baseline in the process.
Now is a good time to discuss the thin margin that separates Monfils and Tsonga. Jo has developed a penchant for delivering inspired tennis in the clutch, and it’s a big reason why he’s currently ranked a career-high No. 6. Monfils, who has now lost 12 of 16 career finals, has not.
Case in point: Tsonga notched a crucial hold in the fifth game of the second set after taking a couple of scary falls in the backcourt on consecutive points. If there ever was a time for him to lose concentration and let Monfils back into the match, this was it, but we know how this story turns out. I’m not so sure that Monfils would have maneuvered the same task so calmly.
In the very next game, Monfils sealed his own fate by sending a loose forehand wide on a sitter that should have been an easy put-away for him, handing Tsonga a one-break lead that he would never relinquish. It was but another piece of evidence that ruled in favor of Tsonga, who now owns eight ATP titles.