Early in the first set between Gael Monfils and Ernests Gulbis, Tennis Channel commentator John McEnroe summed up the hype that had surrounded this second-round match. “As far as head cases go,” said Johnny Mac, a man who knows a thing or two about the subject, “these are the cream of the crop right here.” The question was, what kind of spectacle would the two infamously mercurial talents, who had never played each other before, put on for the noisily partisan Parisian center court crowd?
While it won’t go down as a classic, and neither of their heads exploded, Monfils and Gulbis still managed to give us a little bit of everything over four adventurous sets. There were, as expected, violent swings in mood: Gulbis in particular alternated streaks of gritty brilliance with phases of seeming resignation. He won the first set with a rifle-shot backhand winner, and went up a break in the second set with another barrage from that side. Then, just as he looked to be in control, Ernie lost it. Serving at 4-5, he made three consecutive errors to lose the second set, and the mistakes continued to fly through the third. By the time Gulbis was down 2-5, a commentator for Eurosport put it best with this line: “He’s found the self-destruct button and he keeps pushing it.”
That’s when, naturally, Gulbis’ mood and game swung violently in the other direction. For the rest of the third set, this match lived up to all of its explosive possibilities. Gulbis went from self-destructive to indestructible: Playing defense out of the Nadal playbook, and then converting it into sizzling winners on offense, he denied Monfils five set points at 3-5. Two games later, at 5-5, they staged a classic 10-minute game, one that in hindsight likely decided the match. Gulbis’ momentum took him to break point, and it appeared ready to give him the break, but Monfils saved his serve with a one-handed backhand stab that clipped the tape and dropped straight down, like a stone, onto Gulbis’ side of the court. There was nothing Gulbis, who was in a winning position in the rally, could do. And there was nothing he could do to recover his momentum. In the third-set tiebreaker, he made five unforced errors and, down 6-4, watched helplessly as Monfils extended in his trademark Gumby-esque fashion to tap a forehand volley over for the set.
Monfils had the crowd in a good mood, so good that they did the Wave while he got out his phone and filmed them on the sideline. Gulbis, meanwhile, deflated after his run fell just short in the third, put up little resistance. The War of the Combustibles ended with a win for the Frenchman on his favorite court, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-2. Gulbis had taken his chances and missed: He finished with 52 winners against 69 errors. But he had come close. Monfils won two more sets, but just seven more points on the day (139 to 132). The biggest had been his net-cord winner at 5-5 in the third.
La Monf traditionally saves his best for what he calls the "strange magic" of Chatrier, and he’s in the process of doing it again—ranked No. 81, he has a path that could lead to his second semifinal here. Next up for him is Tommy Robredo; the two haven’t faced each other in six years. Today Monfils had his passive moments, he made his share of bad choices, and he managed to squander six set points before closing out the third. But, like the rubber-band man he can resemble, he kept bouncing back.