First of all, you have to give them both a hand. Andy Murray and Gael Monfils played into the last traces of daylight on a cold evening, having waited out a long rain delay and a first match at Chatrier Stadium, in which Andrea Petkovic wiped the floor, frankly, with Sara Errani, the crowd’s favorite. The fear among Murray watchers was that the waiting and the cold would cause him to cramp up, and there was some relief when he clearly dominated the first set, 6-1.
Watching him dictate point after point, control the pace and choose the moment for an attack at the net, it looked like the Scot had it over the Frenchman, or, if you prefer, was dealing with adversity, or stress, or pressure, better.
Of pressure there was plenty, quite apart from what the introspective Scot puts on himself under any circumstances His back is still recovering from surgery last September, and he is reported to be unhappy to have lost Ivan Lendl as senior coach. Lendl begged off in March, pleading golf, legends tennis, family, and other professional activities: his own life to live, in other words. He argued, fairly, that he had done the job for which he was hired, got Murray — and Britain — the long-coveted cup at the All-England, and the rest was up to Andy. Murray, who historically has not played well on clay, had to weigh these handicaps against Monfils’s: a hurt ankle that prevented him from training rigorously for clay season finale, the fans screaming for the last French player standing to win one for the home side.
Which of the two was better — or worse — off? The truth was that Andy Murray was winning — he took the second set, 6-4, with the same mastery as the first, rarely losing control of the point — because he is the stronger player. Gael Monfils, by wide consensus, is the most gifted and remarkable natural athlete in high-level tennis. His physical prowess, his enthusiasm for sports (he plays them all, loves basketball best, soccer second, has a passion for track and field), his sheer natural talent are legendary even in his own time. He is, however, the same age as Murray (27) and has yet to establish a solid record of matches, let alone tournaments, won. He is a natural. And success in human endeavors entails adding something to what nature provides.
Something, in other words, did not happen. A case, you might say, of unfulfilled promise, arrested development, or what. In this regard, Monfils, who is a very sweet man if a bit of a ham and too prone to play to the crowd when he should be playing the point, may be typical of French tennis. The French are very good: they always are well represented at tournaments and make a good show, but it stops a round or two before the one that counts.
This year, Gael Monfils (the name is apt) was the great French hope, with a recovering Richard Gasquet and a Jo-Wilfred Tsonga who crumbled before Novak Djokovic in an early round. Monfils was the last musketeer. And Monfils was not ready: the bad ankle, the absence of a regular coach, the missing stamina, the dread of having to fulfill the expectations and hopes of others.
In the gentlemen’s draw, the French Open, formally the Championnats Internationaux de France, has not been won by a Frenchman since Yannick Noah (father of Chicago Bulls star Joakim) did it in 1983, beating Mats Wilander. The Swedish great, who writes a column for the French sports daily L’Equipe (“The Team”) during the Open, observed the other day Monfils had a chance, of course — he is too talented to be dismissed — but his money, had he to put any down, was more likely to be on Ernests Gulbis, who, as another commentator put it, has moved from fantastical to fantastic.
The French tennis public feels for the Roland-Garros tournament rather the way its British counterpart felt about Wimbledon until Andy Murray’s victory last year, and the way we are going to be feeling pretty soon about Flushing Meadows if something does not give soon. So of course, the weight fell upon the lean loose gangling star from the Paris suburbs who would probably prefer a pickup basketball game in the ’hood than the burden of representing his country, loyal as he is.
France has been a major tennis power ever since the origins of organized international tennis in the 1920s, but there has never been a period like the one that began when the Roland-Garros stadium was inaugurated in 1928 to defend the Davis Cup the famous “four musketeers” had won in Philadelphia the previous year, overwhelming William “Big Bill” Tilden and his teammates. Between the musketeers and, on the ladies’ side, the “diva” Suzanne Lenglen (for whom the other big stadium here is named), France was to tennis until the mid-’30s as America and Australia were for a decade and a half following World War II. Since then, there have been plenty of fine players and a respectable number of Davis Cup trophies and Grand Slam wins, but nothing approaching the supremacy of yore.
And no one is asking for the supremacy of yore. They only want a man to hold aloft the “coupe des Mousquetaires.” So, upon Gael Monfils, the pressure fell.
He almost answered the call. Because after Andy Murray lost the third set in a squeaker at 4-6, the momentum shifted. Monfils was invigorated; he rushed through the fourth set dropping only one game. Would there be another of those infamous Murray meltdowns, the ones Lendl was supposed to have exorcised? His back, the clay surface, the mutterings to himself, the low percentage of first serves he was getting in, the crowd’s hostility — was it possible? In tennis, it is always possible.
And yet, it has to be admitted no one expected this. We figured on a tough fifth set, probably going the distance, into extra games and perhaps even quite a few. They might even have to postpone it, because even with double daylight saving time, Paris nights in late spring and summer eventually turn dark, and it was well after nine by the time that last set began.
Down the promenade, Rafael Nadal, after dropping the first set to his friend and compatriot David Ferrer, was decisively getting the job done. The opposite happened at the center court where Murray and Monfils were battling. Murray, to be sure, was good, even great. He plays an aggressive, beautiful game, pushing his opponent from one corner to the other and setting up winners over and over. But in the fifth set, Monfils’s counter-punching defense (in which, when he is on his game, he displays an almost superhuman ability to run down anything sent over the net) simply collapsed. He just made one wild shank after another. Murray took the set 6-0 — no one could quite believe it, but that was the score.
It was not a great match. It went all of five sets, some three and a half hours, with a raucous crowd and all that, and, no doubt, there were beautiful points, long rallies, several brilliant clashes at the net as well as superb baseline duels and marvelously executed winners. But fundamentally it was one-sided and, as such, something less than high drama. Murray should have won in three sets but threw chances away. Then he lost the mo’ in the fourth. Then he got back to business and took care of it in a few minutes, admittedly with a huge assist from the self-defeating Monfils. But Monfils, we then remembered, was the underdog and, for all his talent, against a determined Murray never really had a chance. Well done, Ivan: you told your student it is time now to go your way on your own; and it appears that despite his protestations, he heard you.