Shanghai: Monfils d. Federer
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Gael Monfils, I'm willing to bet, isn't power. Rather, it's probably something like drama, sliding, hair, or funky clothes—qualities the Frenchman has in spades. But beneath Monfils' flash is force, even if it isn't used to the degree it needs to be on a consistent basis.
Today was one of the good days for Monfils, who sported an afro, a neon-orange top, and, most striking of all, an aggressive mentality. The latter is exactly what's needed to beat Roger Federer, even at 32 and in the midst of a difficult season. The Swiss suffered another early-round loss today, in part due to his own struggles but mainly due to Monfils' authority, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3.
From the beginning of this third-round match, Monfils' strategy was evident: Put the point on his racquet, win or lose. He didn't hold back on first serves, notching 15 aces on the day, and took healthy cuts on shorter balls and when given good looks at returns. When I think of Monfils, what comes to mind is someone who covers the baseline in occasionally breathtaking fashion but often to his detriment. He has the court coverage skills, but he regularly undoes himself with a seeming penchant to play to the crowd, rather than the scoreboard. That may work against lesser players, and even against John Isner at the U.S. Open for a set, but a baseline master like Federer can render Monfils' theatrics as pure show.
So Monfils smartly held back some (but not all) of his tricks in favor of no-nonsense offense. He took the first set without much trouble, making the lone break stand up with commanding serving; he won 15 of 18 first-serve points. But the plan nearly went off the rails in the second set, one in which Monfils held a 5-3 lead. He couldn't hold the lead and let Federer back in the match, which went the distance after Monfils dropped a tiebreaker in which he was again caught from behind. One term that never comes to mind when pondering Monfils is "mental rock," and the third set would test his sometimes fragile psyche.
But while Monfils' fortunes wavered, his determination never did. He displayed strong play in all respects, saving both break points he faced and winning over 80 percent of his first serves again. Two of the 14 first serves he scored on were aces, to open what would be the final game of the match at 5-3. When Federer harmlessly sliced his final service return, Monfils backpedaled to swipe an inside-out forehand that whizzed down the line and past the 17-time Grand Slam champ.
Where do both men go from here? For Federer, he'll next play in Basel later this month. It might be his best chance to win another title this season, with a slightly lesser field and an obvious home-court advantage. But considering Federer's form, he'll need to be at his best against anyone who opposes him at the ATP 500—it's not a walk in the park for him there any more.
For Monsieur Monfils, he'll face Novak Djokovic in another appealing contest. The temptation to engage in baseline battles will be there, but that's an even more difficult ask than it was today against Federer. When it comes to his play, Monfils would do best to be as loud and aggressive as his fashion.