Explosive Monfils and ice-cool Soderling provide Paris drama

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
gael monfils
(Photo: Mirsasha)

gael monfils

It is impossible to find a heading that sums up the drama played out in Paris on semi-finals day in the last Masters of the year.

The two matches each lasted two and three-quarter hours: five-and-a-half hours of continuous play. Between them, they lasted just one game short of the maximum: five tie-breakers and a sixth set of 7-5.

And both matches featured a Frenchman in front of the most vociferous tennis fans in the world. Michael Llodra had never even reached a Masters quarter-final before, while Gael Monfils lost in the final of this very event last year.

There were motives aplenty for the non-French participants, too. Robin Soderling, since entering the top 10 a year ago, has gradually crept up the rankings to a current high of five. If he goes on to win the Paris title, he will overtake Andy Murray to reach No4.

Roger Federer, as seems the case with every tournament he plays, had even bigger targets. By winning his semi, he would become the first man to reach the final of every Masters event in his 30th Masters final. And if he won, he would equal Rafael Nadal’s record-breaking 18 Masters titles.

Llodra’s only two previous matches against Soderling, both on hard courts, had resulted in wins, and it looked for all the world as though he would do the same again.

It was Soderling and Llodra who took to the court first: Gallic flair pitched against glacier-hard Soderling. The tall, rangy Frenchman had been thrilling the viewing public all week with his left-handed serve-and-volley game that seems a throwback to the era of John McEnroe.

The fast courts certainly helped it flower this week, just as his career has enjoyed something of a flowering during 2010. In his 12th year as a pro, Llodra has won his fourth and fifth career titles, first in Marseille -where he beat Soderling -and then in Eastbourne. This week, he had already beaten second seed Novak Djokovic and No10 Nikolay Davydenko. He will therefore, by the end of the year, reach a career-high ranking of 23.

Llodra’s only two previous matches against Soderling, both on hard courts, had resulted in wins, and it looked for all the world as though he would do the same again. While Soderling started off slowly, hitting just three aces and 41 percent of first serves, Llodra surged through his games, hitting 74 percent and eight aces.

He constantly attacked the net, serving with that old-fashioned s-and-v style of tossing the ball ahead to help with the forward movement. No sooner had Soderling picked up his bullet of a serve -which he did rarely -than Llodra was already poised to hit away a volley in the opposite direction.

Neither man had dropped a set throughout the tournament, and this set would be no different: they headed with speed to a tie-break. Soderling lost his first serve with a net chord, and that was Llodra’s signal to attack with a vengeance. He served perfectly, slicing Soderling’s second serve wide and pouncing into a copybook angled volley. The French attack was so persistent that Soderling was forced to push shots wide and Llodra was quickly serving out the set -a whitewash of 7-0 -with an ace.

At the opening of the second set, Llodra conceded his first break point but even under pressure from Soderling’s big forehands at the net, Llodra dived for three volleys in a row to hold.

Soderling then resisted three break points in his opening game with big serves and net attacks of his own. He later admitted that he aimed to take the net more often, but that Llodra’s low, sliced drives gave him little opportunity. Yet he found, bit by bit, ways to make some inroads into the balletic and instinctive tennis of the Frenchman. The Soderling serve percentage crept up and he maintained remarkable composure under the pressure of charismatic French tennis and of a vocal crowd.

Serving to stay in the match at 4-5, Soderling produced a couple of aces and took the net position. It was brave and bold stuff.

The 11th game produced Soderling’s second break opportunity of the match and he took it with a superb backhand return followed by a running forehand cross court winner, possibly his best shot of the match. Despite almost being broken back, he served out 7-5.

In the final set, the momentum seemed firmly with the Swede. He was reading the French game better, moving better, and had younger and stronger legs underneath him. He’d also played one less match than Llodra. The Soderling serve percentage soared -by the eighth game, he had hit 15 of 16 first serves -while Llodra’s waned. Soderling, with an icy glint in his eye, broke.

But after a short break for treatment to foot blisters, Llodra found a second wind. With a break point to draw level again, he played one of the shots of the tournament, roaring to the net on a second Soderling serve and picking off three successive volleys that left him face down on the court. His fist pumps would have done Nadal proud and the French crowd went into overdrive.

All the more impressive, then, that Soderling kept his cool to serve out a love game. Llodra replied in kind. In the all-or-nothing 12th game, Soderling found himself at match point down three times. After more than 14 minutes, he held serve with an ace to take the match into a final tie-breaker. It was Swedish coolness worthy of Bjorn Borg himself.

Llodra pulled back from 2-5 down to 6-6 but, given a second serve to attack, Soderling broke the Frenchman. That was all the invitation he needed to serve out a thriller of a match, 8 points to 6.

Stylistically, it was a match to relish. The flair of Llodra’s net attack -77 times -and reactive and elegant volleying may encourage others to add this tactic to their armoury. It very nearly notched up Llodra’s third top-10 player this week.

But Soderling’s growing focus, fitness and maturity -clearly nurtured by the influence of coach Magnus Norman -is turning Soderling into a very impressive power player with enough wit and skill to adjust his tactics and evolve his wide-ranging abilities.

It seemed that whatever match followed would be an anti-climax, despite pitting one of the most flamboyant players in tennis against one of the most brilliant. It did produce a less consistent quality of tennis, but it cranked up at least as much tension.

Federer was after yet more records, and had been going about it in the right way. He had not dropped a set, and conceded just two break points, against three challenging opponents. He notched up 18 aces in his quarter-final match against Jurgen Melzer -a record tally for the Swiss in a two-set match. And ahead of this event, he was on a 12-match winning streak, had reached five finals from six consecutive tournaments, and four consecutive Masters finals.

But Monfils had the bit between his teeth and the crowd at his back. He had also, it seems, started to pay heed to his patient coach, Roger Rasheed: play offensively. In a flash, he had won three break points on Federer’s opening serve. The Swiss had to play 20 points through nine minutes to finally hold.

In contrast, a calm and focused Monfils held serve with ease. Despite calling the physio after the fifth game, he produced three aces and a first serve percentage of 82 for the set.

Federer also served well, 11 aces in the set, so a tie-break it was. The game swung either way, but a shocking volley error from Federer rang alarm bells, and Monfils grabbed the set with an ace.

Federer’s first break point chance of the match did not come until the third game of second set, but was neutralised by an ace. He began to look edgy, apparently discontent with some of the line-calls and his own errors, and he was clearly struggling to read the Monfils serve. Nevertheless, the set reached another tie-break and Federer found his characteristic concentration to channel his irritation into a 7-1 scoreline with his best tennis of the match.

That same focus saw Federer break Monfils’ opening service game, produce more wide, kicking serves, and play more patiently from the baseline. He took a 3-1 lead, and Monfils looked all done in.

But just as his compatriot had done in the first match, the Frenchman regained his concentration and energy levels to fire off some outrageous forehand winners that reached almost 100 mph, and he broke Federer for the first time this week. Then, in the most dramatic game of the match at 5-6, Monfils faced five match points.

It was edge-of-the-seat tennis for the supporters of both players, particular when Federer hit an easy volley long. Monfils finally held serve and egged on the crowd, much to Federer’s obvious disdain. The Swiss immediately hit a wild off-forehand to lose his first service point, and that created the launch-pad for Monfils’s attack. He gained his first match point and took it at the first attempt.

This was a momentous win for Monfils who, much as Soderling, seems finally to be channelling his talents and unrestrained play into some truly powerful tennis. And he too owes some of the credit for that to the steadying hand of a good coach.

Federer will rue his missed opportunities, but with the successes of the last month, he will not be too perturbed. Indeed an extra couple of days’ rest back in home-town Basel might be just what the doctor ordered ahead of the World Tour Finals.

Monfils will be trying to recharge his batteries to win his home-town title at the second time of asking and, incidentally, gain revenge over Soderling for his defeat in Valencia just last week. It promises to be a no-holds-barred final.

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