Anyone who ever wondered what it might take for Gael Monfils to set aside his love of showmanship and exhibitions of athleticism in favor of punishing, intelligent, result-oriented tennis received the answer today: A record number of fans—27,432—watching him in Lille as his French side trailed Switzerland 1-0 in the Davis Cup final.
Monfils found himself looking down the barrel of the cannon, tended by Roger Federer, after Stan the Occasional Man Wawrinka pummeled French No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. Monfils responded with perhaps the most impressive match of his career (at least at a critical time, in a major event) to level the tie with a persuasive, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 demolition of Federer. It was over and done with in a mere hour and 46 minutes.
True, Federer has been hampered by a lower back strain suffered, ironically enough, during his exhaustive semifinal struggle with Wawrinka at last week’s ATP World Tour Finals. But even an entirely fit Federer playing close to his best might have been hard-pressed to find answers to the probing, piercing questions Monfils asked with his suddenly lethal forehand abetted by his familiar speed and mobility.
Monfils nearly doubled Federer’s winner count, 44 to 25, and he made 11 fewer unforced errors, 18 to 29. Ranked No. 19, Monfils rained down 10 aces to just three by his opponent, and he won an incredible 89 percent (34 of 38) of his first-serve points—a statistic qualified by the fact that he successfully converted a shade under 50 percent of his first serves.
Monfils basically outplayed Federer in every department, and didn’t surrender a single break of serve. The world No. 2 had a look at just two break points.
Afterward, the Frenchman told the press: “That definitely is one of the top three matches in my life. To be honest, I was very nervous in the beginning. For sure when Jo lost, it's an extra pressure because we need to get back on the road to win the title.”
Perhaps Monfils should get “very nervous” before more of his matches.
Of course, Davis Cup is a best-of-five-match proposition, with this tie now transformed into a best-of-three. The win by Monfils also shattered one of the great hopes animating the Swiss camp, that they might win both Friday singles matches and earn some breathing room when it came to the Saturday doubles.
Swiss captain Severin Luthi had penciled in Michael Lammer and Marco Chiudinelli as his doubles team. Both pros are journeymen ranked in the nether regions of the ATP in both singles and doubles (Chiudinelli in the 200s, Lammer in the 500s), and on paper they would be heavy underdogs no matter who the French send out tomorrow.
At the moment, the French have elected Julien Benneteau, who partnered with Edouard Roger-Vasselin to win the doubles at Roland Garros earlier this year, to play alongside Richard Gasquet. Benneteau is ranked No. 25 in singles and No. 5 in doubles; Gasquet is No. 26 in singles and a competent doubles player despite not having played enough to earn a ranking commensurate with his skill.
Either team can substitute for one or both doubles players for up to an hour before the match. It’s impossible to imagine that Swiss coach Severin Luthi would stick with Lammer and Chiudinelli. More likely, he will send out Federer and Wawrinka, a formidable team that won the gold medal in doubles at the 2008 Olympic Games.
That’s a risky move, though. It would deny Federer a precious day of rest and healing before he faces Tsonga in the fourth-rubber battle of the respective No. 1s. Should the French win the doubles point, the pressure on Federer and Wawrinka would be enormous. Yet with a Saturday win in the bank, even another subpar performance by Federer would still leave Wawrinka with a chance to clinch for Switzerland in the fifth rubber.
“I'll definitely make myself available if I feel that I can play proper tennis,” Federer said of the prospect of playing doubles. “I started to feel better as the (Monfils) match went on. That's very encouraging, I must say. I would think that I'm going to get better as the weekend goes on. I hope I’ll be fine tonight and tomorrow morning to give maximum possibilities for Severin and back up Stan and the rest of the team.”
Those were brave words, but the risk of playing Federer in the doubles is obvious. And it would be a grave mistake to imagine that Federer and Wawrinka could rip through a match with the likes of Benneteau and Gasquet. A long doubles match featuring the Swiss singles stars—win or lose—might also leave both of them leg-weary for the final two singles rubbers.
Once again, the doubles match in Davis Cup looms with an importance the game never quite achieves in routine, tournament tennis. It’s a good reason to love Davis Cup—if you have any appreciation left over after showering Monfils with his fair share for his performance today.
Asked about the motivation for his spectacular display today after the match, Monfils was somewhat lost for words. He stammered out: “France. Final. Here. I cannot describe it.”