Rotterdam 2019

Rotterdam 2019: Gael Monfils wins first title in over a year against resurgent Stan Wawrinka

Monfils wins first title since January 2018, with Wawrinka runner-up for first time since French Open final in June 2017

Stan Wawrinka
Stan Wawrinka (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

It had been almost two years since three-time Major champion and 2015 Rotterdam titlist Stan Wawrinka reached a final.

Indeed, his semi-final against the top seed in the Dutch city was only the third tour-level semi since reaching the 2017 French Open final: the other two were ATP250s last year.

The reason was simple. The 33-year-old suffered double knee surgery in August 2017, and from a ranking of No3 in the world when he lost in the first round of Wimbledon that summer, he had slumped outside 250 by a year later.

His return proved longer and harder than he anticipated: He came back at the start of 2018, lost in the very first round of Rotterdam, and missed Indian Wells and Miami. Indeed, by the time he arrived in Canada for the Rogers Cup, he had won just six matches.

The Swiss man’s signature power tennis broke to the surface in a great quarter-final encounter with friend and compatriot Roger Federer in Cincinnati, and he went on to make the semis in St Petersburg.

So he began 2019 on the rise towards a current 57, got to the quarters in Doha, but then found himself in a battle royal against Milos Raonic in the second round of the Australian Open. These are the tough times when there are still no seedings, but although Wawrinka lost in four tie-break sets and more than four hours, the signs were again positive.

He admitted ahead of Rotterdam—the only indoor event to have yielded a title among his 16—that he was beginning to return to form:

“I did a great off season, getting back physically. Now I need to get some matches, but I need to be patient with that… It’s been a lot of time now, more than a year, to get back to normal physical level, but now that I’m here, I’m really happy and hope to play a great year.”

His growing fitness and confidence showed with each round in Rotterdam. Unseeded, he beat No4 seed Milos Raonic, No10 seed Denis Shapovalov and No1 seed Kei Nishikori, and admitted: “This is a big relief for me. It’s my first final since the surgery, so to show I can still play at this level against the top players is very important for me.”

It so happened that he would face another unseeded 30-something in the final, No33 Gael Monfils, a good friend with whom he had practised many a time but had played in earnest just once in the last eight years—the Swiss beat Monfils in that 2017 French Open on his way to his last final.

And it so happened that Monfils was also on his way back to form after a career littered by injury, and his exciting, high-energy tennis had been on full show in Rotterdam.

He had already beaten No8 seed David Goffin, and No5 seed Daniil Medvedev, and he reflected along the way on his improving form after multiple injury problems—and he missed six Masters events in 2017 and five in 2018 due to illness and assorted injuries.

“I prepared well in the off-season and I am starting to believe that I can get back to the top of the game.”

He certainly had some form in Rotterdam. The 32-year-old former No6, owner of seven titles from 28 finals, had reached five quarter-finals in this city, went on to reach the semis in 2009, and was now into his second final.

The super-fast, athletic Frenchman got off to a superb start, breaking Wawrinka in the third game, and holding his advantage through the opening set to break again for the lead, 6-3.

But Wawrinka hit back in the second set, breaking in the opening game and consolidating with a love hold. He was not done there, either, breaking again and holding for 4-0. He played the kind of aggressive, full-blooded tennis that had been on show all week, piling up 13 winners in a swift set, as he broke again for 6-1.

There were signs, indeed, that Monfils was struggling physically, particularly with his left hip, which affected the pace of his serve. But a couple of painkillers, and he was soon back to his all-court best, able to live with Wawrinka at the back of the court, and then able to take advantage of a few careless errors from the Swiss. He broke in the third game, though not before a remarkable rally of angled drops and pick-ups ended in a handshake and smiles at the net: A lovely moment.

And when Monfils broke again for a 5-2 lead, the writing was on the wall for the Swiss, no matter that Wawrinka pulled off some huge winners to earn a break-back chance in the eighth game. Monfils was still on the rampage, and earned match points with a quality serve-and-volley play. He closed it out as a Wawrinka defensive shot flew long, 6-2.

Now, though, the packed Ahoy arena was treated to the most warm-hearted embrace as each wrapped their arms around the other, patted their heads, smiled and exchanged generous words.

And that good-spirited conclusion extended to the trophy ceremony. First Wawrinka:

“It’s always tough to lose in the final, but if I lose to someone, I’m happy it was against you, Gael, you are close friend and I’m really happy for you.”

Then Monfils:

“Stan, you know I love you, you’re my brother. This win is part of him. We’ve been practising a lot, we been talking a lot, this winter. Was a good week for you too, and I hope we have many more battles.”

Monfils then added his own personal tribute to the man who won in Rotterdam in 1975 ad 1976:

“For me it’s a special tournament: it’s the second tournament that I can put my name next to my idol Arthur Ashe, so it means a lot.”

This was a fine conclusion to a tournament that, a week ago, had suffered many disappointments: the withdrawal of no fewer than seven top-30 players, including world No3 Alexander Zverev and No10 Marin Cilic. Then the second and third seeds, the exciting young talents of Karen Khachanov and Stefanos Tsitsipas, lost in the first round, along with No8 seed David Goffin.

That the last two men standing should be former top-six players of pedigree, both now well into their 30s, both making great injury comebacks to once again produce big-time tennis for the fans, ended Rotterdam on a high.

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