French Open 2015: Monfils talks the talk ahead of Federer – and rain – challenge
Gael Monfils is looking forward to his fourth-round clash with Roger Federer at the French Open on a rainy Sunday in Paris
The tennis forecast could not have been brighter for middle Sunday at Roland Garros.
The only remaining French woman in the singles draw, No29 seed Alize Cornet, was to get the party started, and she would be followed onto Philippe Chatrier by one of no fewer than three French men’s seeds, crowd-pleaser Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Across on Suzanne Lenglen, No12 Gilles Simon would take up the French baton, and if that was not enough to get the home crowd in full voice, Court 1 served up three doubles matches with French interest. Jeremy Chardy partnered Pole Lukasz Kubot against the Bryan brothers; Pierre-Hugues Herbert joined a man a decade his senior, Nicolas Mahut; and Kristina Mladenovic finish in the mixed doubles with another veteran, 42-year-old Daniel Nestor.
But sandwiched among them was France’s Mr Entertainment, the biggest escapologist in Paris, Gael Monfils. Late into Friday night, he had set Roland Garros rocking by coming back from two sets to one down for the second time in a row, this time against the No21 seed Pablo Cuevas.
Now he would play his fifth match in the space of a year against Roger Federer, a man he had beaten in the last two of those matches and had taken the full distance in the other two.
And much as the Parisians have always loved their 2009 Swiss champion—a man with enough elan to charm the stylish French and able to chat as easily in French as in English or German—there are few who capture their imagination as much as the charismatic showman Monfils.
For a man who whose career has been littered with injuries, one able to conjure up outrageous shot-making, super-flexible movement, and the kind of passionate support that other players can only dream of—and it’s been that way since he became one of the rare players to win three junior Majors in 2004.
And for all his absences from the tour, he has won five titles from 22 finals, and made the quarter-finals at his home Major four times, reaching the semis as long ago as 2008. He also reached No7 in the rankings around four years back, slid to 119 two years later, and is now back to 14.
But back to that rivalry with Federer. Three times before they had met at Roland Garros, and each time Federer has won. But Monfils has always had the ability to cause the Swiss problems: His first win came at that other Paris tournament, in Bercy in 2010, a thrilling three-tie-breaks match. And few will forget how close the Frenchman came to beating Federer in the quarters of the US Open last year, taking the first two sets, and holding match points, too.
It would be incautious to give too much weight to their subsequent clay meeting, indoors, in front of the French crowd, in the Davis Cup final. Federer was barely back into action after back injury forced him to withdraw from the final of the World Tour Finals.
But in Monte Carlo a month ago, there were no such excuses: Federer had opted out of the Miami Masters to focus on his clay preparation, but he had no answer to Monfils when they met in the third round, going down 4-6, 6-7(5).
So Monfils, and his loyal fans, had every reason to relish this latest meeting, combining that clay success with the formidable, not to say notorious, French support. He and Federer get on well—they had fun together in the IPTL event in December. But he also knows how to provoke and tease, and Federer would undoubtedly have heard his comments about their imminent meeting.
“Paris is different, is magic. So I’m here. I don’t know how, but I’m here. And as I say at the beginning, the guy who will beat me has to be very strong and it’s gonna be very, very, very tough for him.”
There was more: “Somehow I just maybe find a couple of things in my game to put him in trouble and to actually move him. I also try to find a rhythm with Roger that I’m happy with, because Roger always wants to dictate the match the way he wants, the way he makes you wait or speed up the match, the way he will select his shot. And sometimes Roger gets pissed a little bit. And also… I know he will respect it… when I saw it the most it was in US Open, Roger was very unhappy when the crowd is not behind him. And [smiling] that will help me a lot, for sure.”
Federer, though, is unlikely, at his 17th Roland Garros, to let such things get to him, nor is he likely to face an entirely hostile crowd, such is his popularity wherever he chooses to ply his trade. So he began by acknowledging the threat posed Monfils:
“He’s played me tough throughout my career, I thought. Especially the last four, five years now. He’s been tougher for me to play against.”
But he then made sure to throw in their previous Roland Garros meetings—without referring to the results: “We have played against each other here on a few occasions as well. Semis, quarters, some of my big years here. So clearly I’d love to play against him.”
And he was also quick to downplay those last two losses.
“Well, I look at the four final matches. I don’t want to look too much at Davis Cup, because I played, you know, with fear. I only had an hour of preparation. So Davis Cup is a little separate. He played very well during Davis Cup.
“Now, Cincinnati, US Open, Monaco, these were interesting matches. All three were very tight, very close. [Now] he’s in Paris, he’s at home. He’s very strong, he loves these kinds of matches. So I know the danger. I know his performance. I know how much capability he has. I really would like to see him accomplish more. I hope it will be a good match.”
Then he added, with a smile and twinkle of mischief: “I hope I’ll win. I’m not here to lose when I play him, right?”
The ground was prepared, then, for a battle not just of tennis but of mind over matter, of pride, and of tactical nous.
However, the ground itself was far from ready: The bright French schedule forecast for Sunday was not blessed with bright weather, and the home crowd would have to wait out rain delays for their moments in the sun.
And that cloud may prove to have a silver lining for Federer. Monfils’s last comment about playing Federer?
“The only thing I would like to happen is for the court not to be too windy. It would be good for me.”
It was windy.