Can a match be called predictable if one player, seemingly barely able to move his hitting arm at the start, loses the first set 6-0, wins the second 6-3, goes down 0-5 in the third, comes back to lead 6-5, but finally loses in a tiebreaker after squandering three match points? Yes, as a matter of fact it can, as long as that player’s name is Gael Monfils.
It also helps if the opponent is Fabio Fognini. The Frenchman and the Italian, two of the ATP’s veteran characters, staged a late-night epic-that-nearly-inspired-a-riot a few years ago at Roland Garros. So even when Monfils looked ready to throw in the towel through the early going today, you had a feeling, with these two guys on a court together, that things wouldn’t be quite so straightforward.
Fognini came into this semifinal on a two-tournament, 12-match win streak, and he was the steadier player through all three sets. He did what he always goes, rallying with casual ease and picking his spots to go for the corners when the chance presented itself. It was Monfils, not surprisingly, whose form veered wildly. He had played another draining three-setter the previous night against Albert Montanes, and today he came out with a long black sleeve on his right arm. But as the commentator calling the match said, “Monfils is an enigma wrapped in an enigma.” You never know exactly what’s going on in his body—or below the Medusa corn-row hairdo he sported today. La Monf may look like he’s on his last legs, until he starts using those legs to run everything down.
This time Monfils began to dig in and find some energy in the middle of the second set. The pace on his shots picked up, while Fognini, seemingly surprised by the transformation in his opponent, began to miss. The combination was enough to get Monfils through the second set, but he immediately went flat again to start the third. Fognini built a 5-0 lead, as the punch went back of Monfils’ serve and he began going to the drop shot, which wasn’t working for him, as often as possible. It looked like he was ready to call it a day for a second time.
Once again, though, Monfils’ looks were deceptive. Just when all appeared lost, he loosened up and began to mount a slow comeback. He saved two match points on his own serve at 3-5, and Fognini finally came unglued as he served for the match, for a third time, at 5-4. While losing that game at love, he bunted the easiest of volleys into the net and punctuated it with an old-fashioned racquet mangling. Still, it didn’t do much good. Two games later, Fognini, his mind apparently fried, double faulted at 30-30 to go down match point. At 30-40, he missed his first serve and tossed in a weak second one.
Now it was Monfils, who had been behind from the first game, who suddenly had the match on his racquet—and he couldn’t handle it. The Frenchman dumped that easy return into the net, missed another return long on his second match point, and watched as Fognini took command and saved the third with a forehand winner.
The tables had turned for the final time, as Fognini ran way with the subsequent tiebreaker to wrap up his 13th straight win, 6-0, 3-6, 7-6(3), and reach his third straight final. After the handshake, a fan ran onto the court to congratulate Fognini, who grabbed him and lifted him over his head. It was a fitting finish to a match in which every bizarre twist, turn, and surprise felt like it was just one more scene in a typical Fog-Monf script.