Snakebite Antidote?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

“After this, as I usually say, it’s very strange, but here (Roland Garros) it’s magic. It’s magic. It’s a place where I feel really good, and, yeah, I can go beyond myself and play a type of tennis I wouldn’t even think of. Even today before the match, how people told me, ‘You are going to play four hours with such a score,’ I wouldn’t have believed it. So there is magic to some extent.”Gael Monfils, after his five-set win over Tomas Berdych on Court Philippe Chatrier yesterday.

PARIS—A few days ago, I wrote a post about the struggles the French men chronically face playing in their home Grand Slam. Is it possible that the snakebitten French will break out of their (roughly) quarter-century slump and, in one glorious burst, satisfy their countrymen with something like an all-Gallic final (Tsonga vs. Gasquet, anyone?)?

Okay, let’s not get carried away here. Just getting a man to the final would be a monumental accomplishment; producing a winner could trigger a surge so powerful that it leaves Spain in France’s shadow, for the French already have a formidable fleet of elite players—but no Moses to lead them out of the ATP 250 wilderness.

These aren’t idle speculations, on yesterday’s evidence. The French men had one of their best opening-round days in years: They went eight for 11, the dirty half-dozen all coming through. Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon, Julien Benneteau, and Michael Llodra lost a grand total of just six sets—four of those by Simon and Monfils, each of whom won a five-set encounter. And most important, France’s Grande Trois—No. 6 seed Tsonga, No. 7 seed Gasquet, and wild card Monfils—were impressive. The two seeds won in straight sets, while Monfils, whose ranking fell to No. 109 while he was forced to the sidelines with injury—was inspired to notch up a magical but well-earned inspired upset of No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych.

Let’s take a look at what lies ahead for these guys, starting with the big dog, Tsonga, who like Roger Federer benefited from No. 4 seed David Ferrer landing in the lower half. That means Tsonga could make the final without facing top-seeded Novak Djokovic or seven-time champion Rafael Nadal—and would (potentially) have to meet only one of them to win the tournament.

In the short term, Tsonga’s path looks promising: The biggest obstacle in his path in the next two rounds is the beatable No. 10 seed, Marin Cilic. After which he might have to lock horns with Federer in the quarterfinals. Tsonga was cautiously optimistic:

“To win a tournament, I’m going to have to confront those (top) people,” Tsonga said, referring to the top four. “If it’s in the quarterfinal or semifinals, well, that’s not what really matters. What matters at the end of the day is just to beat them all, to put it simply.”

Gasquet has a tougher assignment, as he’s in the top half with Djokovic and Nadal. So you can see where he can’t afford to even think about those guys, the way Tsonga can. They cast long shadows, and those fall right over Gasquet, who’s in the same quarter as the scariest of them all: Nadal.

In the second round, Gasquet will meet 29-year old Polish qualifier Michal Przysiezny, who had the unappetizing chore of beating the same player in back-to-back matches. He overcame Rhyne Williams, the young American, in the final round of qualifying—and drew him again in the first round of the main draw.

“I don’t want to have too much pressure on myself,” Gasquet said of his long-term prospects. “I want to do my best. I want to have a nice tournament. I have gained maturity and it’s something I enjoy to be here. I know the crowd is supporting me. I want to give my best tennis and we will see how far I can go.”

That’s code for: I think I’m over that choking-at-the-French-Open phase of my career. . .

Some qualifiers and wild cards are lucky enough to get two or more winnable matches; others get a hellish draw. Monfils falls into the latter category, even though he’s in the (theoretically) weakest quarter, Ferrer’s. But what is Monfils asked to do for an encore after beating Berdych? He gets one of the hottest players this year, Ernests Gulbis—after which he could face accomplished clay-courter Nicolas Almagro.

“It’s going to be a big match again,” Monfils said of his upcoming clash, dismissing the theory that Gulbis could self-immolate, like in the good old days. “As I usually say when I look at the draw, ‘Okay, it’s not that good for you.’ [But] if you want to do big things, it’s never easy. . . it’s up to me to show him that even though I played a long match, I have recovered and that here, you know, I’ll be difficult to beat.”

Then Monfils boldly added, “He will not have the upper hand. I’ll be difficult to maneuver.”

That may not be idle bravado; just a vote of confidence in good old magic.

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