Dubai 2019: Stefanos Tsitsipas battles past Monfils in marathon effort to reach No10
Stefanos Tsitsipas beats Gael Monfils in three sets to reach the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
Semi-final day in Dubai dawned in an inauspicious style. This part of the world is accustomed to no more than five days of rain a year, but the weather had chosen this week to make an appearance.
After a couple of match-halting showers in Thursday’s quarter-finals, it went on to rain in earnest in the early morning.
Seldom is the Centre Court here drenched, and seldom to they have to hose down the seats of their deposits of sandy dust.
Still the air had a humid, heavy feel and a dull, beige hue, but tennis would begin on time. And this sell-out week had plenty to relish: two clashes of the generations, two young players on the verge of breaking the top 10, two clashes of styles—one-handers against double-handers— and one seven-time champion aiming for the 100th title of his career.
That last player was, of course, Roger Federer—but what also stood out about the other three in this quartet was that each had scored significant wins over the Swiss star. For, after an early culling of seeds in Dubai, the final four to make it this far were all quality acts.
Second seeded Federer needed no introduction in his second home: He had been coming to this tournament since he was 20 and before he had any of the 20 Majors he has now accumulated. And this week, he notched up his 50th match-win here on his way to his 11th semi-final.
He would play No6 seed, 22-year-old Borna Coric, already ranked No13 and with two titles to his name, the first won at the age of 20. Things may have moved even faster for the young Croat, who won his first two finals in 2016 but then needed knee surgery. No matter: one of the fittest men to rise up the ranks, he last year won 40 matches, among them the final on the home turf of Federer in Halle, and then he beat the Swiss star again at the Shanghai Masters to reach the final.
But that tasty semi would headline the evening session. Before came the equally appetising contest between one of the biggest talents to hit the tour in the last year or two, 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, and one of the biggest talents, a former No6—in between repeated injury problems—of the last decade, 32-year-old Gael Monfils.
Tsitsipas did not win his first main-tour match until 18 months ago—he beat Karen Khachanov after qualifying for the Shanghai Masters in October 2017—and the very next week reached the semis in Antwerp.
So he had broken the top 100 by the start of last year, then beat three top-20 players on the way to the Barcelona final, reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, the semis of Washington, and made a Masters final in Toronto after beating four top-10 players.
By the end of 2018, he had won his first title in Stockholm and the NextGen Finals in Milan, to arrive at this year’s Australian Open ranked No15—an astonishing rise. And when he got to the semis in Melbourne, taking out Federer in the process, his name was headline news. Yes, Federer had got the better of him in the Hopman Cup in their only other meeting, but the Swiss was, by his own admission, playing some of his best tennis on that occasion.
Tsitsipas had played Monfils twice, and they shared the wins, but the Frenchman had won this year’s encounter in Sofia and gone on to win his first title in over a year in Rotterdam.
The super-athletic Monfils was looking more consistent, more eager, and more fit than he had in many a year—happy in a new relationship and with a new team—and was looking every inch a winner after beating David Goffin, Daniil Medvedev and Stan Wawrinka in Rotterdam.
Both men, then, had titles this season, and were on winning runs. Tsitsipas, having arrived here with the Marseille title, would break the top 10 with a victory today, Monfils was already back in the top 20 from 46 a year ago. And both men were box-office in their explosive style of play, their speed, and all-court ability.
Opportunity knocked very early for Tsitsipas, in the second game—three deuces, and a break point courtesy of a net rush by the young Greek. He broke at the second attempt, and held for 3-0.
But Monfils raised his level, firing off crowd-pleasing shots and passes against the advancing Tsitsipas. The Frenchman went on a tear of five straight games, and the Greek became frustrated at his inability to contain the pace and penetration. He twice tossed his racket—though without breaking it—but was admirable in holding from 0-30 at 3-5. Even so, Monfils had the edge, mentally and physically, and closed out the set in a scant 40 minutes, 6-4.
Also to the youngster’s credit, he did not back off the aggressive, free-swinging tactics that had earned such success this season. He kept coming in, accepted the occasional pass, held the opening game.
But come the third game, and Monfils was out-manoeuvring the Greek time and again, winning the touch exchanges at the net, chasing down slice and angled backhands, and whipping in those passes to within inches of the lines. He got the break, 2-1, with the diving Tsitsipas unable to retrieve the situation.
Indeed, he picked up an injury in the process, and sought medical help at the change of ends. It appeared to be just anti-inflammatories, but Monfils held with ease to maintain the pressure, 3-1.
Tsitsipas, looking a little lack-lustre, perhaps beginning to feel the exertions of his season—particularly his first Major semi-final—but held for 2-3.
More than that, he upped the attack, and broke to level the set, 4-4. Another hold, and he had break point for the set, and Monfils caught a millimetre of the line to hold deuce: It would go to 5-5, and then a tie-break, edged by Tsitsipas with a cracking return-of-serve winner, 7-6(4).
This was far from over, as the third set extended both men to the limits. Monfils faced break points in the first and fifth games, and Tsitsipas fended off four in a long eighth game. By 5-5, they were locked at 120 points each: A tie-break was inevitable and entirely appropriate, especially after Tsitsipas rushed the net for three volley winners on three deuces against his serve.
And once in the tie-break, this three-hour match concluded on the side of the bold young star, who edged the first lead 4-2, and continued as he began, going for his shots, 7-6(4).
He threw his racket into the air in delight and relief, now the No10 in the world, and all with a commitment to full-out attack on a tennis court. The two men had 133 points each, but Tsitsipas won the last two of them. It was a remarkable match by a remarkable young player, who assessed the achievement thus:
“I take a lot from this. I have improved since last year. Beating the big guys, big players, players that have been in the top 10, means a lot to me. I want to get there at some point myself, and I made it today. I don’t know, but probably a special day for Greece.”
He is not wrong.