French Open: Federer vs. La Monf—Bliss Interrupted

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By Bill Simons

Roland Garros has limitations.

It’s jammed Times Square-tight. Sometimes you can barely move. There are no lights, and certainly no gleaming roof protects the terre battue. Figuring out when Paris’ gorgeous dusk will descend to end matches is a minor art form. And, as we learned during Vika Azarenka’s justified snitfit yesterday, there is no Hawk-Eye line-calling system. Tempers do flare.

But Roland Garros has style, beauty and history. So many great matches. Emotion lives here.

And the fourth round match-up of grace incarnate, the beloved Roger Federer, and the angular “La Monf,” Gael Monfils, promised to be delicious. Could there be a more splendid way to bid farewell to a spring weekend in Paris?

Yet, something was wrong. Yes, in a feel-good mid-day mini-marathon, Jo-Willy Tsonga downed Tomas (“Will he ever win a Slam?”) Berdych, and then offered the most athletic moment of the day. His post-match celebration was a wondrous outburst: three leaping twirls, an almost unending howl of ecstasy, and a no-nonsense fist pump. His marks from the court-side judges were good: 9.6 for technical merit and a 10 for artistic impression.

Historians recall how, after his wins, Andre Agassi would bow deep; how Andrea Petkovic once did her post-match jig, “the Petko dance”; and how Rafa Nadal bites trophies after he prevails. Still, most feel Jo-Willy has the best celebration ritual in tennis history.

But forget Tsonga. And forget that former French champ Ana Ivanovic, former Aussie champ Stan Wawrinka and Japan’s rising son Kei Nishikori all advanced tidily. For today was all about the most appealing match-up of a rather ordinary French Open. At last we would have a dazzling encounter: Mr. Cool, Roger (the oh-so-splendid poet) Federer, versus that free spirit, Gael Monfils, tennis’ “Best in Show” entertainer. How wonderful!

But wait, this Sunday was off, Euro grim.

Dull steel skies, cool temperatures and assorted drizzles drained the spirit. Paris, dare we note, loses a measure of its celebrated charm when it goes gray.

So it was hardly surprising that as evening approached and Federer and Monfils at last began, the usually-animated La Monf seemed as flat as a three-day baguette. Sinatra was out of tune. Astaire was stumbling. Picasso was making a muddle of it all. Gone were all of Gael’s Gallic bolts that thrilled us on Friday. “He looks like he’s just not at the races,” noted broadcaster Gigi Salmon.

Instead, amidst fierce winds and a tame throng, Roger raced with his usual no-nonsense professionalism to a 6-3 first-set win.

The pundits scowled. This could get ugly—Fed could run away with this.

But La Monf is nothing if not unpredictable. With him, there is a simple imperative: wretched play so often morphs into brilliance; indifference gives way to inspiration. If you don’t like his play, just wait a minute. The man craves crisis and adores drama.

So, in the second set, Monfils—who lost to Federer the first five times they met, but beat him in Davis Cup play last fall and in Monte Carlo this spring—sprung into action. Improvisation is his brand. As he began to crank out forehand winners, the crowd awoke. He dished out aces. His lobs kissed the backcourt and deflated Fed. He offered a way-too-cool, fake-out, nonchalant drop shot that someone should really ban.

La Monf may have been blowing his nose incessantly on the sideline, but on court, he broke Federer and raced to a 5-2 second-set lead. Then it seemed he might blow it, as Roger cranked up pinpoint forehands to break back and draw up to 5-4.

The moment was dark for both Monfils and the unkind skies. While Roger focused, Monfils chatted with the ump and asked a tennis poobah in the front row for a blanket.

It appeared La Monf could very well lose the second set. But after those two dreary games, he roared back, blasting massive forehands and an nifty backhand passing shot to even the match at 3-6, 6-4. Monfils seemed to say, “I may live dangerously on the edge, but I am not going to blow it.”

The man who blew it was the scheduler. Never mind that today every baker and busman in Paris knew that knew wet weather was coming—the most appealing match of the week was put “third on”—a guaranteed late start. Not surprisingly, it was suspended due to darkness.

So what promised to be an inspired duel for thousands in Paris and millions of viewers was merely a tease: bliss interrupted.

Roland Garros—the proud retro tennis palace with no lights and no roof—today frustrated us with just an aperitif. This was the Kentucky Derby without the backstretch, golf’s Masters without the final nine, Michael Jordan without a dunk.

We can only imagine brilliant Federer crosscourt backhand flicks, or leaping volleys by La Monf. Weekend drama was now relegated to that most dreary of all days—Monday.