PARIS—There’s always something special when some off-the-radar story develops and begins to challenge familiar, overarching themes like, “Can anyone beat Nadal at Roland Garros?” or “Will Serena Williams add another French Open title to her resume?”
For example, the story that overwhelmed the conventional narratives back in 2007 was the “Serbian Spring,” which was when the portion of the world that isn’t doggedly focused on tennis was introduced to Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic, and Novak Djokovic. They marched in lockstep to the semifinals, granting interviews left and right, and stole the show even before Ivanovic punched through to the final.
Only one thing tops such a scenario, and that’s when it involves a player from the host nation. You can groan and moan about “hype” all you want, but Melanie Oudin crafted a truly remarkable story in 2009 when she slashed her way like a deranged smurf to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. It was the most electric and surprising story of the tournament since Jimmy Connors stole the show from Stefan Edberg and Jim Courier in 1991, reaching the semifinals at age 39.
One of those rare, potentially towering stories may be building here. We’re in a rain delay as I write this, but I feel like I’m also on a hurricane watch as Gael force winds begin to build in the draw. That’s a clue: The story of this tournament may prove to be Gael Monfils, the Frenchman whose stars seem to be aligning for a deep run here.
(By the way, it’s easier to get a feeling about this when you’re on site to witness the way various forces—the crowd, the media, the personality and history of the player in question—intermingle and shape the potential story like the ambient factors that combine to create a hurricane.)
Could this Monfils dream run become a reality? It would certainly be an enchanted story, given that the last Frenchman to win at Roland Garros was Yannick Noah in 1983. Enough time has passed for this to become almost as big a story as a potential win by Andy Murray at Wimbledon, when you factor in how many great players France (unlike Great Britain) has produced—none of them able even to make a Roland Garros final in recent years.
And Monfils has popped up out of nowhere, despite his pedigree and past history. He fell off the radar when he slipped out of the Top 10 in 2011 and has been exiled from Masters and other high-level ATP events. He’s also struggled mightily with injuries. On the eve of this tournament he was ranked No. 109, but then he won the ATP 250 at Nice. His history here at Roland Garros is excellent—better than that of all his countrymen, and he freely professes his love for the tournament. More significantly, he embraces the challenges that make some of his fellow Frenchmen slink away.
“I feel very great here,” Monfils said after his convincing win over Ernests Gulbis yesterday. “You know, it’s my hometown. I feel great. I have different energy, you know. The spirit is great here. Family, friends. And the crowd is 100 percent behind me, so it’s just amazing, you know. You know, I would say I take this pressure in a good way, so maybe that’s why, you know, I’m competing good here.”
So good, in fact, that yesterday Monfils was moved to take a video with his cell phone of the crowd doing the wave during his match with Gulbis. It’s just another of those goofy little touches that makes you think maybe something special really is happening here, and helps drive the idea that maybe it is. Really, would Monfils even have thought to do such a thing here a few years ago? Someone asked Monfils if he received a warning or a fine for that charming stunt. No, he said, and explained:
“I asked the chair umpire before. I ask, ‘Can I be allowed to tape the wave?’ I tell him, and he tell me, ‘Sure, you can.’ So I say, ‘Okay, I will tape it, like quick. No worries.’”
Consider this: The path for Monfils, who upset No. 5 Tomas Berdych in five grueling sets in the first round, isn’t especially rocky. He gets Tommy Robredo next, and has winnable matches going forward in David Ferrer’s quarter, the least menacing in the draw.
But Monfils is tired; he arrived at Roland Garros straight from Nice and had to start on one day rest. But he’s floating along, dealing with the hand he’s dealt, and being all Zen about it.
“I’m surprised (to have such good stamina),” he said. “You know, with adrenaline and all that. I can ‘repress’ this, but I am very tired at nighttime, in the evening. I’m exhausted in the morning. My body feels heavier. It takes me a little more time to feel good, and I do things very carefully so that I can recover as quickly as I can.
”I’m still worried (about fatigue), as worried as I was before. And tired. But I don’t want to show it. How can I say? I don’t know how to explain this (energy). No idea.”
Does Monfils feel any more confident, now that he’s cleared the Gulbis hurdle? “No,” he said. “Every single day is difficult. I wouldn’t say that one match is tougher than any other. You know, when you’re tired it doesn’t vanish all together, and the best thing to do is to have a rest, take a little rest, which is something I don’t do. So the only thing I try and do is not to think about it.”
He added, “I’m going to talk about my parents. My parents you know what they tell me? They say something very simple. From time to time they say, ‘Don’t you think about it.’ You know, ‘don’t think. Do it. Don’t think. Do it.’ That’s all.”
Granted, some of his semi-mystical pronouncements can be put down to poor or hurried translations, but there’s more to it than that. You can feel it in the air, something special has been building and just may coalesce into a great story. But as we've learned so often this week, the weather around here can change pretty quickly, and after all Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the highest-ranked Frenchman, may play a hand in this game, too.