French Open 2015: Federer impresses, but Tsonga, Mahut, Monfils lift the roof

Roger Federer impresses, but home favourites Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Nicolas Mahut, Gael Monfils steal the show

For anyone in the vicinity of Roland Garros on a sunny afternoon at the end of May, there can never be any doubt when a French player is in action.

The roars and chants and cheers reverberate across the home of clay’s Grand Slam for a clear mile in all directions.

Just such a day was Wednesday, a day that saw first men’s No12 seed Gilles Simon sail past Martin Klizan and then No29 seed Alize Cornet beat Alexandra Dulgheru, two of the first French to reach 2015’s third round. In fairness, these two were expected to win, and did so, appropriately, without dropping a set.

But as the sun angled lower in the sky, the roars drifted ever higher across the northern borders of the famous grounds towards the Bois de Boulogne. For on Courts 2 and 7, two of the five Frenchman scheduled to try their luck were about to overcome the odds, and the home support could barely contain their joy.

Benoit Paire, ranked 71 and working his way back to form and fitness from countless injury setbacks, had spent much of the season playing Futures and Challengers, and had notched up only five main-tour wins this year. But on this particular afternoon, the tall, talented former world No24 was buoyed up by that famous French crowd, and even the charisma and unpredictable flair of No28 seed Fabio Fognini was not a match for that.

The more Fognini trailed in the score, the louder the crowd became, the more irritable became the Italian, and the match reached a pulsating crescendo that surely ricocheted from Notre Dame as Paire struck back from a third-set deficit to steal the set and the show, 6-1, 6-3, 7-5 after an hour and 40 minutes.

But no sooner had the noise retreated than an even more emotional match rose to take its place. Nicolas Mahut, 33 years old and with a single-handed backhand and old-fashioned serve-and-volley game, has enjoyed his biggest successes on grass and in doubles.

By the time he opened his 13th visit here, with a wild card, Mahut had won precisely three matches at Roland Garros before. By Paris’s cocktail hour, he would have added two more to that tally by reaching the third round. What’s more, he did so over the 24th seed, Ernests Gulbis, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.

Perhaps it was the prospect of not playing in his home nation’s biggest tournament again, which he hinted at after that opening victory: “I think, yes, I looked at things slightly differently this year. I thought, I’m going to enjoy every single moment. I’m 33. I was given a wildcard this year. If I’m not on the main draw next year, that’s going to be the end of it probably. No more wildcards. Who knows? Who knows? This is what I said two years ago, you never know when it’s going to be the last one.

“In the past when I went back home, I was, as we say in French, as sad as a stone. Because Roland represents so much for us. ‘You’re going to miss this opportunity because you didn’t play your real game.’ It’s more difficult for an attacking player than for any other player.”

Whatever the motivation, it marked only the third time in his entire career that Mahut had recorded back-to-back clay wins, and was only his second main-tour win this year—his first being his opening match here. As luck would have it, he has to play countryman Simon in the next round—a Philipp Chatrier moment if ever there was one. Who will they cheer for? It just may be for that old-school Mahut.

Could Roland Garros take any more excitement in one afternoon? Well one of their favourite sons, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, brought down the curtain on the Lenglen arena with little fuss, few histrionics, just that popular all-court, athletic brand of tennis that his public has missed for most of this season. Tsonga carried an arm injury until he rejoined the tour in Miami, but still entered the draw as the No14 seed and raced to the third round for the loss of only 11 games—in his two opening matches combined.

But Tsonga’s progress, pleasing as it may be, could not hold a candle to that of Paris’s second favourite son, the biggest showman on the tour and gifted almost bottomless talent, Gael Monfils.

And as if he needed any more encouragement from the French fans, he was today playing for his 100th clay match-win in his 10th French open.

Monfils was up against one of the fast-rising players on the tour in Argentine 22-year-old Diego Schwartzman, who recently took Roger Federer to three sets in the Istanbul semis. The 5ft7in Argentine took a two-sets-to-one lead, enough to have 90 percent of the central arena singing their hearts out to lift their man. And if there is a player who responds to a crowd better than Monfils, he is nowhere to be found on the tennis roadshow. Sure enough, he came back to win a thriller, 4-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. The French Open’s joy knew no bounds.

Monfils next plays another fast-improving South American, Pablo Cuevas, but it is the match that lies beyond the man from Uruguay that has Paris on the edge of its seat. For there lies a possible fourth-round meeting with one of the tournament’s most loved champions, Federer.

It would be a fourth Roland Garros meeting in 12 matches, and Federer has won the three thus far. But their story of late has been rather less one-sided. In a marathon quarter-final five-setter last autumn at the US Open, Monfils had match points, and he has gone on to win both matches since, both on clay. The last, indeed, was a straight-sets win at the Monte-Carlo Masters.

Another Chatrier blockbuster in the offing, that’s for sure, though the Lenglen arena relished the chance to watch Federer ply his elegant but aggressive trade against Marcel Granollers today. The French support the Swiss craftsman as one of their own—and it was as a nod to this support that he so openly wore his heart an his vivid purple sleeve.

He chided himself with roars, blasted some choice Swiss into his towel, shook his head at this error and that, scuffed the odd petulant foot at some uneven clay. He also smiled and applauded some delightful shots from his opponent, and there was plenty of class tennis from both to delight this demanding audience. Serve-and-volley plays, drops, lobs, long sliced exchanges, and more.

Federer raced to the first set in 24 minutes, they exchanged breaks in the second before deciding it in a tie-break. Not for the first time, Federer broke out the winners to grab it, 7-6(1). The Swiss then conceded an immediate break in the third set—and vented his spleen at towel and box after a missed break-back chance. But in plenty of time, he switched back into gear and served out the set, 6-3, with 38 winners and cheery wave.

He afterwards explained that he knew little of his next opponent, Damir Dzumhur from Bosnia, ranked 88. The reverse was not true: “I watched [Federer] playing the semis of, I think, Wimbledon with [Andy] Roddick. That was the first time I was cheering for him. Since then he’s been my idol. I remember him since I was 10 or 11, and now I have this opportunity to play against him.”

But it’s a fair bet that the home crowd will be hoping Federer tames the young Bosnian: There are few things that could cheer the Paris faithful more than their 2009 champion taking on Mr ‘Entertainment’ Monfils. So be warned, all those who live within a 10 miles radius of Roland Garros.

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