US Open 2016: Frenchmen Tsonga and Monfils joined by fearless Pouille after Nadal win
Lucas Pouille of France beats two-time champion Rafael Nadal in the last 16 of the US Open
After a storming Olympic performance by Team GB in Rio, not least by tennis hero Andy Murray in becoming the only man ever to win two golds, it has become easy to get carried along on a patriotic wave at the US Open in New York, too.
And Great Britain has had good reason over the last seven days to feel good about its tennis. The men’s and women’s main draws boasted eight players, and day by day, they were setting new personal and national milestones.
Murray, of course, led the way in one of his most successful ever seasons. He made the fourth round for the 23rd consecutive time in a Major, and is in line to be just the fourth man in the Open era to reach all four Major finals in a calendar year.
Leading the women was Johanna Konta who had surged from a ranking of around 100 in her breakthrough to the fourth round here last year to achieve her highest seeding at a Grand Slam, 13, this year. Heather Watson fell ill at the worst moment, while Laura Robson, having come through qualifying, was put out by fellow Brit Naomi Broady—her first US Open win in her debut main draw here.
As for the men, Dan Evan’s outstanding summer made him the second ranked Brit, and rose the occasion with wins over No27 seed Alexander Zverev and was one point shy of victory over No3 seed Stan Wawrinka.
Then there was Kyle Edmund, just 21 years old and bursting with confidence after leading a Murray-less Davis Cup squad into the semis against Serbia. First he beat No13 seed Richard Gasquet, then No20 seed John Isner, to earn a tilt at Novak Djokovic for a quarter-final place. Edmund had never even played the main draw in New York before.
But there is another country that has easily outshone GB’s achievements on the tennis court—on the men’s side at least. France has long been one of the powerhouses, a nation that currently has seven in the top 50, nine in the top 70—and once wild cards are taken out of the equation, the most men in the main draw in New York: 13 of them, with six seeds.
At least one Frenchman had reached the quarters at the US Open in five of the last six years, and the two highest ranked of them, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, at 9 and 10, accounted for four of the five. They were not disappointing the fans this year either.
Tsonga did not have an easy draw, with the likes of big-hitting Kevin Anderson and the fast-improving home favourite Jack Sock in the way. But he made the quarter-finals for the loss of just one set, ending American hopes as Sock, the last of their 17 reps went out, 6-3, 6-3, 6-7(7), 6-2.
He it would be who faced the winner between Djokovic and Edmund, but in the other top-half quarter, it remained possible for two Frenchmen to contest a semi-final place.
The hugely talented and athletic Monfils has worked his way back to his highest ranking since 2011. He was looking formidable but, more important, consistently so. Thus far he had not dropped a set and would not blot that run against Marcos Baghdatis, advancing to the quarters here, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.
The odds suggested that he would next play No4 seed and former champion Rafael Nadal for a place in only his second ever Grand Slam semi-final, but Nadal came into New York with the smallest of question marks over his form.
The Spaniard was forced to pull out of his third-round French Open match with a left wrist injury, and did not return to competition until the Rio Olympics. There, he played at full throttle, won gold in doubles and played three exhausting three-setters from the quarters through to the bronze medal play-off.
He flew straight to Cincinnati, but by the second match against Borna Coric, he looked all done in. But treatment to his arm and shoulder could be put down to referred stresses from that wrist, and he insisted in New York that he was fine:
“It’s obvious that when you have been out for two months and a half you need a little bit of time… but the wrist bothers me a little bit less every day.”
His opponent, the quick, powerful, all-court Frenchman Lucas Pouille, is just 22 years old but was here as the No24 seed. He certainly announced himself on the tennis stage at Wimbledon with a first Major quarter-final run, beating Juan Martin del Potro and Bernard Tomic.
But he came into his first fourth round at the US Open with a five-set victory over No15 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, his second straight five-setter. Add to the equation that Nadal had trounced the Frenchman in their only previous meeting, and this looked a mountain to climb. But the attacking Frenchman came into this match apparently fearless and free-hitting.
Alarm bells were ringing after just 28 minutes: Pouille broke Nadal twice with some dazzling shot-making for a 6-1 lead, acing to hold.
Nadal seemed to right the ship in the second set, breaking for a 3-0 lead, and the resilient Spaniard held off a bombardment from Pouille through a 10-minute game for 4-1. Nadal broke again for the set, 6-2.
The third set cranked up in intensity, especially after Pouille broke straight away. Two hours down, and the Frenchman broke again, serving out the set, 6-4.
Nadal veered between brilliant and wayward—a distinct shift from the clutch tennis that has characterised his career. The two men exchanged breaks, but Nadal broke again, and took the set, 6-3. Now he seemed to have the momentum and the control, and broke in the first game of the decider.
But Pouille went on the offensive again—he would make 38 points out of 60 net plays—and broke back to level 4-4: The two men were locked at 134 points each.
They headed, appropriately, for a deciding tie-break, and Pouille threw in more brave plays with a serve and volley here, a drop-shot winner there. And he it was who took the initial lead, 3-1, with a backhand pass of the finest quality.
He then hammered two forehands to bring up 6-3, but naturally, Nadal dug deep to level. However, an uncharacteristic volley error from the Spaniard, and Pouille produced one last forehand winner, his 59th winner of the match, for a famous victory, 7-6(6).
It had taken 4hrs 7mins, and it had Arthur Ashe on its feet. It also ensured three Frenchmen in the quarters of a Major for the first time since 1947.
Pouille summed it up for the cheering fans: “My first match on centre court against Rafa. I couldn’t dream better than this.”
It’s 33 years since a Frenchman won a Grand Slam, though, with the closest being Tsonga’s first ever final run at the Australian Open—eight years ago.
Could this finally be their time?