This year's Madrid Open has been about many things. Clay court icon David Ferrer played the final match of his professional career only this week, Rafael Nadal is being watched ahead of the French Open to see how he performs; but perhaps the biggest story was Roger Federer taking his 1200th match win, in his ongoing return to clay after three years.
Federer completed a clinical dismantling of Richard Gasquet only three days ago, but on Thursday, he was to take on the mercurial Frenchman Gael Monfils, who might as well have that phrase prefixed to his name. One of clay's biggest talents, Monfils, 15 years ago, was on the cusp of a Calendar Grand Slam in the boys' singles, winning the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon on the trot.
Since his early success, however, something seems to have plagued Gael Monfils. It is not that he does not have powerful groundstrokes: he does. It is not that he cannot craft shots, either: Monfils is known for being able to construct points and have his opponents scrambling across the court to return. We saw him do that to his Swiss rival last night.
On Thursday, Roger Federer may have saved two match points to defeat Monfils " but it was Monfils who, after being bageled in the first set, squandered two match points.
Monfils has a huge arsenal of shots and can pull out tricks at the drop of a hat; that is something no one can dispute. The timing of those shots " not in a tennis sense, but in a literal sense, is what is unfortunate. Gael Monfils is a consummate showman, and one who likes to entertain - both himself and the crowd. And he is also quite a warrior. Indeed, for most people, it is not that easy to come back after being bageled quickly, let alone by a steamrolling Roger Federer.
But La Monf is hardly most people, and he raced quickly to a 3-0 lead, dictating every point and managing not just to control, but close out some long rallies with his legendary Swiss rival. It almost seemed that he could not put a foot wrong in Set 2, and as the Frenchman raced to 4-1 with a love hold, the second set seemed as though it would be finished as clinically as the first " just on the other side of the net this time.
Monfils sent Federer around the court, baited him into errors, and even engaged the Swiss in long rallies: not the mark of someone who is either unfit or out of touch. But somehow, it was just not enough " and it was Monfils who lost himself the match.
ON THE COMEBACK 💪
Scintillating tennis from @Gael_Monfils 👏
" ATP Tour (@ATP_Tour) May 9, 2019
At this point, with a couple of shots going long, into the net and a few double faults along the way, Monfils lost what he had regained at the beginning of the set " composure and morale, and almost the set with it. And here, perhaps, lies one of Monfils' biggest problems: keeping his train of thought within a match.
In an interview with his close friend of 20 years, the tennis player Gilles Simon, Simon said that "¦the emotional part with GaÃ«l is much more important than with any other player: It's almost all of it." That, unfortunately, means that the Frenchman can get carried away with emotion and have it affect what is no doubt prodigious playing skill " as has happened with others before him, but no one more so than himself. "He doesn't like to win 6-1, 6-1. He needs some drama at some point," Simon had said.
Indeed, in putting on a big show, and displaying those tricks, Monfils loses sight, perhaps, of the bigger picture " the match at hand, and the need to stay on an even keel throughout. That is important against any opponent, but perhaps none more so than the seemingly unflappable Roger Federer, who, barring the early part of his career, has rarely been seen expressing too much emotion on court. One might argue that it it is that that makes Monfils human; like one of us, but with an almost unparalleled talent at a sport. For Monfils, however, it is what is preventing him from going just that one step further.
Despite his numerous brushes with injury over the years, the last couple of years have been good for the tall Frenchman. Last year, he opened the season with a title at the Qatar Open, then saved match point to beat Horacio Zeballos at Rio, and was locked in a two-day epic battle against Marin Cilic in a match halted by inclement weather.
This year, Monfils took his ninth title, with a three-set defeat of former Roland Garros champion Stan Wawrinka in Rotterdam; the knee injuries that have plagued Monfils throughout his career have, thankfully for the ace, not bothered him as much in the past two seasons. It is not even his shots that are inconsistent within a match, but perhaps Monfils himself.
On Thursday, despite holding a 3-0 lead in the second, Monfils was let down by two consecutive double faults, and ended the match with seven. Monfils' loss of composure and his train of thought in gameplay is what cost him that much-coveted win against Roger Federer, which he all but had in the bag in the final set.
Would one then say that Monfils' emotion has been his undoing? It is, after all, what makes one human, and it is not wrong to feel. He would not be himself without it. But it is perhaps in being able to balance and temper that emotion where Monfils, to borrow his own nickname, lets things slide.