Has there ever been an epic match that was, at least until the final two games, as foreseeable as today’s first-round five-setter between Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych? Each man has a history of struggling to hold onto leads, but the Frenchman has made finding ways to lose in five something of a farcical art form. Even when Monfils ends up winning those matches, it seems like he’s trying to give them away. Earlier this year in Australia, Monfils double-faulted four straight times on match point before finally beating Rendy Lu, 8-6 in the fifth. Naturally, he lost in the next round in a fifth set.
So when Monfils, a former Top Tenner who has been out with injuries in recent months and is currently ranked No. 81, took a two-set lead over fifth-seeded Berdych today, few of the sport's cognoscenti were ready to say it was over. Not that Monfils wasn't brilliant and commanding early on. After sneaking through a first-set tiebreaker on his fifth set point, the man known as La Monf had been masterful in the second set, losing just one point in five service games. Despite his relative lack of recent match play, Monfils, who was sporting a bizarre yet somehow appropriate sleeveless-shirt/undershirt combination, was mostly masterful all afternoon. He finished with 66 winners against 44 errors, a very good ratio in a big-hitting clay-court match. His serve, though, was the difference maker; Monfils hit 26 aces to Berdych’s 11, and won 79 percent of his first-ball points.
Yet, true to form, just as he appeared ready to roll to a crowd-pleasing upset, Monfils’ concentration, as one Eurosport commentator put it, “went down the plug hole.” He began the third set by suddenly throwing in a series of tentative and poorly hit drop shots, and was immediately broken. Berdych, who has come back from two-set deficits twice in his career, began to strike the ball with more authority—he was surely aware of Monfils’ reputation as well. The Czech also played an excellent match, hitting 72 winners of his own against 57 errors. More surprising, he saved his most confident tennis for the biggest moments of the fourth and fifth sets. When he pounded two straight forehand winners and an unreturnable serve to close out the fourth set, the French crowd sagged in agonized silence. It looked like the inevitable, another theatrically painful Gael Monfils defeat, had arrived.
Those who stayed in Chatrier for the fifth sagged a little more when Monfils went down 0-40 while serving at 2-3. He was huffing and puffing in between points, and his first serve had lost velocity. Against all odds and expectations, though, it wasn’t the end for him. Monfils recovered, save four break points to hold, and finished the game running around the baseline with his first in the air—now he had energy to burn.
The two held to 5-5, when Monfils cramped. Again, he found a second (or third or fourth) wind, and rifled a huge jumping forehand winner past Berdych for 0-30. The break came a couple of minutes later, and a few minutes and one more 130-M.P.H.. after that, Monfils stood, incredibly, at match point, with the audience on its feet around him. When a final Berdych ground stroke sailed long, La Monf had pulled off one of the toughest things to do in tennis: He had blown a lead and then “come back from ahead” to beat Berdych for the first time in five meetings, 7-6 (8), 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-7 (4), 7-5.
At the very last minute, this classic had turned unpredictable, but it was a spirited match throughout. Berdych’s power had been matched against Monfils' speed, and the two traded baseline bombs for more than four hours. Now the Frenchman, who has gotten his national championship off to a flying start, will take on his partner in head-scratchingly wasted talent, Ernests Gulbis. We might want to start getting ready for another epic, of some sort, right now.