Through the Looking Glass

Wednesday, June 04, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

PARIS—Two of the more volatile and complex players in men’s tennis got together in the quarterfinals of the French Open, and by the time they hashed out their business they could barely find each other at the net for the handshake, it was so dark out there.

This three-hour and 15-minute match had two massive, unexpected shifts of momentum before Andy Murray dragged himself across the finish line, a winner over Gael Monfils by the Alice-in-Wonderland-ish score of 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 1-6, 6-0.

Yes, sets three and four were reverse images of sets two and one. But in the end it was that showman Monfils who disappeared down the rabbit hole, ensuring that it would be at least another year before a Frenchman won his local tournament.

How could he let the fifth set slip away so quickly and comprehensively, after fighting so hard to put himself into it?

“Well, I don't think I have the answer yet,” a pensive Monfils said afterward. “I think I played a good first game. I think it was 15-30 (on Murray’s serve). Then everything happened very fast. I missed a few shots, and I don't know. I don't really know what happened. It was very fast. You know, very fast. I start to miss a lot of balls. I felt not bad, so it was a very strange feeling. Very strange.”

Monfils, who was seeded No. 23 here, won’t be the only one trying to figure this one out; it was one that tennis historians will puzzle over some day, the way they mull over the true meaning of Machu Picchu, or try to figure out just how Rafael Nadal managed to hit his forehand.

“It was a hard match,” Murray, the No. 7 seed, said. “Conditions changed quite a lot during it. It was extremely windy in the beginning, and then it was pretty calm at the end and very slow. Yeah, I mean, he really raised his game in the third set. I thought I played a pretty good third set. Fourth set wasn't my best, but, yeah, it was a fun match.”

In a way, the result was hardly surprising. Monfils has long seemed more capable of turning a tennis match into a dramatic spectacle than in figuring out just what it takes to beat an opponent and then applying it with diligence and conviction—right to the end.

In fact, it seemed clear through the first set that perhaps the best game plan against Monfils is to have no game plan at all. Since he’s such a reactive player, you can just go out and start hitting balls around and take his temperature. Is he into it today? What kind of stuff does he have? Is he open to putting on a show, leaping like a salmon, running like a gazelle, striking poses that a hip-hop artist might envy, slowly but surely turning an ordinary tennis crowd into a passionate ally?

When Monfils is playing in Court Philippe Chatrier, as he was today, you half expect the crowd to stand during changeovers, holding aloft disposable cigarette lighters.

It did not seem like one of those days early on. The first set featured some terrific ball-striking by both men. But Murray, who’s not exactly expert at getting through his workday with no fuss or other bother, managed to draw Monfils into his preferred cat-and-mouse games. Both of these men are superb defenders, but Murray is just that much better at turning the tables and going on the offensive. He was also better at finishing.

While Murray was getting the better of it in rally after rally, Monfils appeared to be sinking into a funk. You could almost hear Murray thinking that if he could just continue to provide an impregnable defense, Monfils probably would implode. In a sense, he was being embarrassed in front of the fellow countrymen who so often inspire him to spectacular heights.

As the second set wore on, the beating Murray was giving Monfils seemed almost cruel. In fact, the biggest danger appeared to be that Murray might actually enrage Monfils, he was cuffing him around so impudently. In the blink of an eye it was 6-4, 5-1, and Monfils was serving love-40 down.

Murray would waste those three set points; his most egregious error was a drop volley that would have ended the set with élan, except that he blew it. An inside-out forehand winner got Monfils back to deuce, and from there he went on to hold for 1-5.

Murray then served for the set. He had his fourth set point at 40-30, but Monfils brushed it aside. Ditto the fifth, and sixth. By the time Murray had his seventh set point, Monfils had settled into an odd but not unfamiliar posture. Still lacking visible energy and enthusiasm, he began to play like a security guard—bent on protecting the game from Murray but aware that it didn’t belong to him, either. You know Monfils in that mode. He plays centerfield, gets everything back, and hopes his opponent will find a way to blow it.

The strategy failed. But the sullen resistance Monfils put up, and all the time that passed before Murray finally won the set, kindled the fire in the Frenchman. He managed to ward off three break points and hold a long first game in the third set, and slowly but surely the tide turned. By the time Monfils won the set with the first break (for either man) in the final game, the crowd was doing its patriotic duty, chanting “Gah-ale, Gah-ale,” and injecting Monfils with energy he didn’t know he had.

The amazing thing about all this was that from about the middle of that set on, Gael was winning points exactly as Murray had won them over the first two sets. There were numerous high-quality rallies in this match, most of them ending when either man went for a hair too much, or failed to retrieve a last, acutely angled inside-out forehand from the first row of the spectators.

“Well, the way that he played the last three or four games, yeah, for me it was unexpected,” Murray said. “His level in the third and fourth sets was extremely high. He made very few mistakes. But that's the thing about five-set matches, is you need to do it for longer than two sets. You need to do it for a longer period than that. Obviously once I got up in the fifth set his level dropped a lot. But, I mean, he did play some really good stuff.”

It really was wonderful stuff, and the crowd lapped it up. They performed the wave, over and over. They stamped and shouted. Monfils responded with heroic determination. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a crowd so completely rehabilitate a once reluctant warrior. The light was fading fast by the time the fourth set was underway and when Murray was broken for 1-3, his game in a shambles, it was clear that we would soon be right back where we started. Two sets apiece: A one-set match.

By then, Murray was looking for some guidance from tournament referee Stefan Fransson, who was showered with boos the moment his head popped out of the tunnel leading onto the court. Murray appeared to be asking Fransson to call it, but he said later that he was just trying to get clarification on how much longer they would go on.

“I didn't want to stop the match either,” Murray insisted. “I asked what the situation was. It was 20 past 9:00. I was told we had 20 minutes left, so, you know, you could potentially play two games, two or three games in that time. Six was the maximum that you could play. I mean, it was so dark at the end.

“Thankfully for me he played a poor fifth set.”

While Murray huddled with Fransson the crowd sang and danced. For his part, Monfils was thinking he wanted to finish Murray off while he had the momentum.

“I wanted to finish today because I knew that Andy was tired and I was better than him,” Monfils said.

Fransson left the court and then we experienced that second massive shift of momentum. Murray started the set with vigor and replenished determination, holding serve. What was unexpected was the way the resistance of Monfils simply melted away with the dwindling light. He was broken with ease from 15 in the second game and then Murray ran away with it, hitting his inside-out, flat forehand as well as he had in the first set, driving his backhands deep into Monfils’ court, using the drop shot and acute angled short-court balls with great expertise.

Had he done that in the third set, Murray might have spared the crowd a lot of anguish. But that is not the way of Andy Murray, nor is it the way Gael Monfils rolls. Monfils did come up with a theory for his abrupt drop in form: He had Murray on the ropes and wanted to end it all before utter darkness.

“Maybe that's why I rush a bit my shot and try to be very aggressive, and then it didn't come.”

But it was time for Monfils to go back through the looking glass—and for Murray to move on to a semifinal meeting with Rafael Nadal.

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