Wimbledon 2017

Gael Monfils ends Edmund hopes, as cool, calm and collected Ernests Gulbis bursts back into contention

Gael Monfils beats Kyle Edmund as Ernests Gulbis downs 29th seed Juan Martin del Potro in the second round of Wimbledon

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis at Wimbledon

There was certainly no excess of luck for Kyle Edmund in this year’s Wimbledon draw. He opened against the only British qualifier, Alexander Ward, so a win for himself would be a blow for his compatriot. Then the 22-year-old ranked 50 in the world had to face the No15 seed, Gael Monfils.

Edmund would probably not have admitted to feeling the pressure of a Briton opening the day’s action on Centre Court, especially against such an unpredictable and often brilliant showman such as Monfils.

He would probably, however, know only too well that four Britons had already made it to the third round, the most in 20 years. He could make it a record-equalling five.

Edmund had already taken a step forward here. Never before had he won a match in the Wimbledon main draw in four previous appearances.

Since last year’s Championships, he had gone on to reach the fourth round at the US Open before Novak Djokovic stopped him. Should he make the fourth round here, it was very likely to be Djokovic who would face him again.

First, though, came Monfils, and perhaps the good news for Edmund, who had not won a grass match at either Queen’s or Eastbourne last month, was that Monfils had never performed at his best on grass. The 30-year-old had made the third round here five times, but never gone further.

Yet here was a player who, despite being beset by injuries over the years—and he had pulled out of three Masters events this year already—had in the past made the semis at both Roland Garros and the US Open. And this season he had regained significant form after reaching a career-high No6 at the end of 2016. Indeed, he made his first grass final in Eastbourne last week, losing to Djokovic.

The early stages, then, were very closely contested with little quarter given in some powerful and athletic baseline exchanges. Monfils was holding serve more easily, and Edmund had to fight off a break point for 3-3, but then the Briton seemed to gain the upper hand in the ninth game.

He pressed Monfils through six deuces and working three chances to break as he slotted backhands down the line. But the Frenchman found his own backhand winner to hold, 5-5, and they would head to a tie-break.

Once there, the serving of Monfils shone through: He aced for 4-0, and served it out 7-6(1) in 52 minutes.

Edmund was hitting more winners but also more errors than Monfils, but the Frenchman was mixing things up nicely. Edmund double faulted to bring up break point in the third game of the second set, survived three deuces, but a brilliant drop winner from Monfils brought up another chance, and he ran Edmund ragged around the baseline to draw the error.

Serving at 3-2, Monfils slipped over at a wrong-footing forehand from Edmund, and it seemed to throw him temporarily. Edmund thumped a backhand winner and broke back, 3-3. Monfils, however, regained his composure, broke in the ninth game, and served out the set in blistering fashion to love.

There was a brief glimmer of hope for Edmund at the start of the third set: He broke and held for a 3-0 lead, and had Monfils at deuce on the Frenchman’s next two service games, but he could not get the insurance break he needed. Instead, Monfils broke back in the fifth game and again in the seventh, and served out the match, 6-3.

So it was not to be for Edmund, who happened to come up against a Monfils who looked fitter and stronger than he has done in many a month. The Frenchman may not like grass—he afterwards grinned “I try to understand the game on grass a bit better, but I’m not a big fan of it… no, sorry”—but he looks ready to roll on it. And with his unheralded and unseeded compatriot Adrian Mannarino up next, Monfils could certainly break new ground to find himself in the second week here.

Lined up there could be Djokovic, who beat Adam Pavlasek with ease. However the No2 seed will, perhaps surprisingly, take on Ernests Gulbis, who beat No29 seed Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets.

This marks an extraordinary return to form by one of the most talented but too often underperforming players to lift a racket in the last decade.

Gulbis reached the fourth round in his very first US Open in 2007 while still a teenager, and also made the quarters at Roland Garros when still just 19. In 2014, he reached the semis in Paris, and scattered along the way were six titles over a four-year period, along with a career-high ranking of No10. However, the commitment to his sport by this very bright Latvian was often questioned.

Perhaps absence has made the heart grow fonder. He won only four matches last year before another good run at Roland Garros to the fourth round. And that had followed no fewer than 18 Round-1 losses in 2015.

A growing number of injury problems over the two seasons did not help, primarily problems with his wrist, but also his shoulder and calf. He had not played at all after last July, returning this February, and he had not scored a single match-win between last year’s French Open and his first-round victory here on Tuesday.

Now with his second win, he has equalled his best run at Wimbledon. The eloquent and forthright Gulbis has always been popular with the media, but perhaps maturity has also worked some magic. The relaxed 28-year-old chatted at length—and was clearly happy to be back to winning ways, even if it brought with it the demands of the media.

Of his preparation for Wimbledon, he explained:

“I was very relaxed. Didn’t really surprise me because I’m just in a relaxed state of mind right now coming into this tournament. I came actually here three days before the tournament, and it was the first time I tried to play points. I played a couple games. The next day I played eight games. Then I didn’t even play a full set.”

And what had brought this inner calm? He was not about to reveal that.

“It’s a long story. There is no miracle. It’s a private story for everybody.”

So why has his big, expressive game not flourished more on grass? After all, he thumped 25 aces, and 13 net winners in his three sets today.

“My game, yeah, grass should suit me. I think what I did well this year, even without having that amount of time to prepare, I started in a really correct way to move on grass. Movement on grass is the most important, that you’re feeling stable… For sure next year, knowing this approach—because also I still try a lot of new things—now I can only learn on this approach.

“But you learn on your mistakes. I’ve been around for a long time. I made a lot of good decisions, and also a lot of bad decisions. So try to learn from the bad ones.”

Now, though, he moves on to one of the all-time greats of the game, three-time champion Djokovic. They have played seven times before, though not for two years, and the Latvian’s only victory was way back in 2009.

But as has always been the way with Gulbis, he has no intention of underplaying his chances. Indeed, it is a long time since he has looked so at ease on a tennis court and in his own skin.

Suddenly, the bottom eighth of the draw that was all about Djokovic and del Potro is about another story entirely.

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