French Open: Monfils and Fognini and Other Sub-Federerian Creatures

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By Bill Simons

Sizzle and sass are their calling cards.

They’re Euro hunks with a Hollywood aura. They draw loud fans and adoring babes, ample groupies. Kids squeal. Neither Gael Monfils nor Fabio Fognini have made it to Slam finals. Still, they drip with charisma, very macho.

But don’t call them spear carriers or bit players. Rather they’re our sport’s sub-Federerian characters—animated support actors who bring intrigue. And their much-anticipated third-round afternoon affair on the often dramatic Court Suzanne Lenglen was a match like few others.

A sense of entitlement about them, these two drip ‘tude. They strut and pout, proud princes of the game. Here, nonchalance morphs into an art form—so very cool. These are clay masters.

Chess-like battles—probe and retreat—break out with a staccato regularity. Deep misdirectional forehands, slice-and-dice backhands, soft-as-a-flower drop shots, deceptive dinks, and seeing-eye lobs.

Fognini called it an epic match—lol. Purists quickly dismissed the encounter. “Bad tennis, good theatre,” they scoffed. Foot faults, penalty points, a middle digit flashed to the crowd, dicey confrontations with fans, a tanked fourth set—not exactly your grandfather’s tennis.

The crowd roared loud. The crowd booed indignantly. Monfils was up two sets-to-one, and then, in the fourth set, he stopped moving and stopped swinging.

Dead in the water, yes?

Think again. Monfils was simply re-grouping, keeping his ammunition dry. “I was starting to struggle,” he recalled. “The only option I had is to take [a] 6-0 [loss]. Why should I make any effort? … I don’t have time [to] waste energy against Fabio.”

Hmm, so losing becomes winning.

The match had more shifts and twists then a disco. Monfils was exhausted, Fognini was flustered, the French crowd—loud and ruthless—was elated.

Not surprisingly, Monfils, the 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 0-6, 6-2 winner, was less than poetic in summarizing the compelling encounter. “You know, for me, it’s not about ups and downs. It’s more about saving my ass.” 

THAT HURTS: When Dmitry Tursunov was asked about the injury he sustained during his loss to Federer, he called it “an ouchy one.”

TWEET WORD OF THE DAY: Rafamazing. 

CROWDED CLOSET: Sloane Stephens has “about 250” of her distinctive braided headbands.

CONSISTENCY: For the sixteenth straight time, David Ferrer has reached the fourth round of a Slam.

SLAM TRIO: There are three Slam winners left in the women’s draw: Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Sam Stosur.

KUZZY’S FIVE-YEAR ITCH: There were five years between the two Slams that Svetlana Kuznetsova won, the ’04 US Open and ’09 French Open. Now, five years later, is she due for another?   

DESPERATELY SEEKING SLOANE: We live in a world of specialists. Spaniards like clay. Aussies prefer grass. Americans don’t do so well in Europe. And then there’s Sloane Stephens. Month in, month out, she underperforms at boring little tourneys. But put her in the limelight, and the LA glitz gal—who delighted in seeing her picture on a Broadway billboard— steps up and becomes a phenom. Last year she had a heady 15-4 record in Slams. In regular tourneys she was just 24-19. Go figure.

The press corps was determined to get Stephens to explain this curious trend.

But good luck. Time and again, reporters went to the well in order to get a theory, an explanation, a tidbit—anything! It proved to be a futile, at times comical effort. Slam Stephens or Sphinx Stephens? You decide. Here’s an edited version of the conversation:

Question: Six straight times [you’ve gotten to the] second week of a slam. That’s the most of anybody on the women’s tour, an active streak. Not bad. You must be pretty happy to keep it going?

Sloane Stephens: Yeah, it’s pretty cool …

Q: Why do you think this keeps happening?

SS: If I knew,I would capitalize on it. I would do it every week.

Q: Throw us a bone.There is a little bit of disparity between your play in the slams and the regular tour.  So anything, something.  What’s going on?

SS: I don’t know … if I had the answer, I would definitely let you guys in.

Q: Do you feel like a different person when you get to these big tournaments?

SS: No. Not really.

Q: There are clay-court specialists and indoor specialists. Could you be a Slam specialist?

SS: I just peak at four tournaments a year. Every other tournament I guess, just get me ready for these.

Q: So how about this [angle]? They say Stefan Edberg had a fire in his belly, he had real desire, passion. So do you have that more at Grand Slams than the other tournaments?

SS: Like I said, same question, I do not know, you guys. I do not know.

Q: Obviously, for the men, slams are different, best-of-five [sets]. Women, not really.  But what feels different about a slam match?  I’m trying here.

SS: Nothing. I don’t know. I’m not sure.

Honestly, if I had the answer … I would tell you guys.  I’d be like, “Oh, yeah,” but I can’t even think of anything.

Q: Let’s try again, what if the fabulous, marvelous Grand Slam Sloane Stephens would play a match against the ordinary, not-so-great, regular-circuit Sloane Stephens?  What would the score be?

SS: (Wrinkling eyebrows) 2 and 2, I mean, duh.

Q: To that point, do you think your first title will come at a Slam?

SS: I don’t know. But then you guys would be scratching your heads, wouldn’t you? You’d be like, “Hmmm, there must be something she’s not telling us.”

BIG JOHN MARCHES ON: The American men went into Roland Garros under a cloud. After a harsh spring, their only recent brush with real news came in the tragic form of a murder-suicide and fire at a Tampa home owned by recently-retired James Blake. But John Isner changed all that Friday by becoming the first American man to reach the fourth round of a major since he made the quarters of the US Open in 2012.

After Isner’s 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 victory over veteran Tommy Robredo, IT asked Isner if he’d spoken with Blake. “I have,” he said. “I live in that neighborhood (in Tampa], too. It hit home to me. So weird and so sad. James didn’t personally know any of the family [who he’d rented the home to], but it was just a bizarre situation … I live extremely close to that house … It’s just a horrible tragedy.”

Two more Americans—Jack Sock and Donald Young—had a chance at joining Isner in the fourth round but fell short. Isner told IT that he understands media criticism about the current state of the US men’s game. “You should talk about [it]—right now there is only one player [from] America in the top 50, and that’s pretty bad. But … there are some guys coming up that are very good, and we’re seeing that, especially with a guy like Jack [Sock].”

MATCHING INITIALS MAKE FOR GOOD MONOGRAMS: Surprise French fourth-round force Pauline Parmentier is part of a small alphabet’s worth of recent and current WTA players with matching initials. She’s joined by Akgul Amanmuradova, Belinda Bencic, Catalina Castano, Fiona Ferro, Jovana Jaksic, Jelena Jankovic, Kaia Kanepi, Karin Knapp, Klara Koukalova, Kristina Kucova, Mandy Minella, Storm Sanders, and young US sensations Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend.

MINOR YOUTHQUAKE ON THE CLAY: The US Open saw three women in their 30s—Serena, Li Na, and Flavia Pennetta—in the final four, but all three of those players and a host of other vets (including Venus and 2009 champion Francesca Schiavone) were knocked out early in Paris. Is clay where the WTA’s younger generation—led by the top remaining seed, 22-year-old Simona Halep—slides onto the main stage, declaring that the future is now? Or will the veteran Sam Stosur (at 30, the oldest remaining player), and relative vets Maria Sharapova (27), Svetlana Kuznetsova (28), and Jelena Jankovic (29) hold back the tide?

TELL US HOW YOU REALLY FEEL: Asked about his fourth-round opponent, Novak Djokovic, French favorite Jo-Willy Tsonga remarked, “I’ve won against him often, but not important duels and big tournaments. He ruined my career.”

NO, TELL US HOW YOU REALLY FEEL: With Serena gone home early, Sharapova isn’t mincing words about her title chances at the French. “I like to be positive yet realistic,” the 2012 champ said, after a double-bagel third-round win. “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be the favorite at this tournament.”

ORANGE YOU READY TO WIN? Novak Djokovic stopped Jo-Willy Tsonga‘s famous Aussie Open title run in 2008, and he came out on top of another showdown two years ago here at Roland Garros. “It was a great match, but it is a bad memory,” Tsonga said about that encounter. “I went into that match with special emotions, but it ended badly. It would be good to finish a good meal with dessert, not a jelly orange, as it is bitter.”

NANNY AND THE PROFESSIONAL: On the subject of whether fathering a second set of twins might impact his Grand Slam performance, Roger Federer said, “How I sleep hasn’t been interrupted. I’m a true professional when it comes to those kind of things.”

NOVAK’S LANGUAGE COUNT: On the hunt for a carrière Slam at the French Open, Novak Djokovic can speak six languages, a number that matches his Slam wins to date. “I think it’s always nice, as a foreigner, coming into a country … [to learn] at least the basics from their languages,” he says. “It’s a nice gesture, a [show of] respect for that culture.”