If you’re a Gael Monfils fan, or a tennis fan, or just a fan of life—anything but a Kei Nishikori fan, really—I’d recommend keeping a video handy of the third-set tiebreaker that those two players contested in Montreal on Wednesday. Whenever you want to be reminded of how good tennis can make a player, a crowd or yourself feel, you can fire up those 14 points.
When you do, you’ll see Monfils pull off the nearly impossible: He comes back from 2-6 down, saving four straight match points and winning the last six points—three of them with outrageous, go-big-or-go-home winners from at, or behind, the baseline—for the win. What made it seem even less possible was the identity of the two players. Monfils was 0-3 against Nishikori, and twice in 2016 their roles had been reversed: In Miami and Rio, it had been Nishikori who had come from behind to nose out Monfils in a deciding tiebreaker.
What made Wednesday’s finale essential viewing were Monfils’ reactions to his winners. At 3-6, after tracking down half a dozen strong shots from Nishikori that looked like they could go for winners, Monfils painted the line with a backhand and nearly collapsed—in exhaustion and laughter. At 5-6, after raring back and sending a forehand dive-bombing into the corner for another winner, Monfils wiggled and shimmied joyously, as if he had lost control of his body. Finally, at 7-6, on his first match point, he rocketed one more forehand winner and let out one more celebratory scream as the audience stood to cheer the improbable sight they had just witnessed.
It wasn’t that anyone was surprised by Monfils’ gets or his winners. And it wasn’t a shocker that he could hold off a couple of match points by uncorking them. What was a surprise, especially against Nishikori, was seeing him finish the job rather than come up just short. Monfils had lost the first set and trailed 2-5 in the second, trailed 3-5 in the third and trailed 2-6 in the final tiebreaker. When he hit that last winner and bent down for his victory yell, I wondered, not for the first—or the 10th—time what the sport would have been like if Monfils had been the type of player who made those type of gritty, never-say-die comebacks on a regular basis.
On Thursday I allowed myself, for a few fleeting seconds, to wonder if Monfils could still become that player. I hadn’t expected much out of him against Roberto Bautista Agut; the Frenchman was bound to be tired, while the Spaniard, like so many Spaniards, never gives an inch or gives up on a match. But Monfils won the first set and led 4-2 in the second-set tiebreaker. When he lost that tiebreaker 7-5, I thought reality had reasserted itself and the third set would be a quick one. But Monfils proved me wrong again. He played cagey tennis, mixing speeds well, to keep it close, and eventually reached match point on Bautista Agut’s serve. This time, though, it was his opponent who held his nerve and saved that point. Monfils, finally, had nothing left for the tiebreaker. Down 2-6, he went for the same down-the-line backhand that had clipped the line against Nishikori; this time he hit it into the middle of the net. Miracles, by definition, don’t happen every day.
Monfils smiled and was, as always, gracious toward the opponent who had beaten him. He knows as well as anyone how little difference there is between a joyous winning effort and a somber losing one in tennis, and he never sweats the defeats for long. He also knows that he’s not going to win from 2-6 down in many tiebreakers, and he’s unlikely to suddenly become, at 30, the kind of player who strings together multiple close wins.
But he is the type of player who can put together the most remarkable 10 minutes of tennis of 2017 so far, and for that, most of us—again, Nishikori fans excepted—should be grateful. I know what I’ll be watching when I want to feel good.
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