If you have a taste for the kind of good old-fashioned tennis shootout that has gone the way of dinosaurs in recent years, you couldn’t help but grin at the end of Roger Federer’s third-round win over Gael Monfils.
When was the last time a three-set men’s match ended after just an hour and 48 minutes? This one ended 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, after an unbridled and often spectacular display of shotmaking by both men. Monfils is not always a player who likes to get down to the nitty-gritty, preferring oftentimes to indulge in the kind of showmanship that can be detrimental to his cause. Not this time; he played positive, aggressive, no-nonsense tennis, relentlessly attacking Federer’s backhand. And he might have succeeded in that strategy if Federer were not equally committed to avoiding games of cat and mouse.
Federer started slowly, yielding a break in the first game. Monfils held for 2-0, but then Federer reeled off four straight games to lead 4-2. Still, nothing comes as easily to Federer as it once did, and Monfils broke again to get back on serve at 3-4, and held the next game.
Serving next, Federer uncorked a pair of unreturned serves and a patented inside-out forehand winner to take the game with ease. With Monfils serving to stay in the set, Federer pressed the attack in spite of the pressure the Frenchman was applying to his backhand. A forehand service return winner started off the game, and Monfils followed with a silly drop-shot attempt off Federer’s next service return. Unable to break down the Federer backhand, Monfils then smacked an inside-out forehand error to give Federer triple set point.
Unrelenting, Federer approached behind a sliced backhand and charged forward, forcing a backhand error. Set to Federer, 6-4.
Federer had chances to break after three consecutive holds at the start of the second set, and his failure to convert either chance had a devastating effect. A backhand error wasted a break point and ultimately led to a Monfils hold for 2-all. Federer then held serve, and had another break point in the sixth game.
On that occasion, Monfils hit a gigantic, unreturned second serve, and continued to serve his way out of trouble for 3-3. It was a portent for Federer, and while he went on to hold for 4-3, Monfils’ pressure was beginning to tell. Monfils held the eighth game for 4-all, then worked his way to break point in the next game. He converted it when the men engaged in a furious rally ending with a backhand rally error by Federer.
Monfils had collapsed in the first set when he served to stay in it, but with the 5-4 lead this time, he stepped up and played a terrific game. From 30-all, he made a sizzling backhand pass for set point, and won it with a down-the-line backhand winner clocked at 92 M.P.H. The men were at a set apiece, and the match was merely an hour and 10 minutes long.
But just as Federer had let Monfils off the hook in the second set, Monfils committed the same sin in the third. After each men held to start things off, Monfils had two break points at 15-40 in the third game. Federer won both, the second with a serve-and-forehand approach winner combination. An inside-out forehand winner and an unreturned serve to Monfils’ backhand vouchsafed Federer to 2-1.
The two then took turns holding until Monfils served at 3-4. At 15-30, they had one of the most explosive exchanges of the match. With both men at the net, Federer fended off one point-blank pass and put away his second chance with a backhand winner. He wasted the first break point with a sliced backhand error, but during the next one he worked his way inside the court and drew the bead on an inside-in forehand winner that Monfils couldn’t even start for.
In the blink of an eye, Federer was serving for it at 5-3.
Monfils pushed Federer to 30-all in that final game, but Federer refused to waver. He took Monfils’ next return moving in behind his backhand, and put away a forehand volley. At match point, he blasted a serve at Monfils’ backhand, and the return never cleared the net.
The stats attest to the aggressive way both men played. Federer hit 34 winners to Monfils’ 27, and 33 errors to Monfils’ 35. Most telling, Federer approached the net a whopping 44 times, winning 26 of his forays. That may not be a spectacular success rate, but it enabled Federer to keep the match from becoming a track meet against one of the most gifted athletes in the game.