PARIS — Who but the French would refer to the quarters in a tournament as the last square? What is this, the Waterloo complex? “La Garde meurt mais ne se rend pas” (“The Guard dies but does not surrender”) were the immortal words spoken by the last standing officer of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the plain outside Brussels, as the Duke of Wellington pursued the assault against an army most of whose regiments were by then retreating in disorder.
And why the quarters, not the semis? Perhaps from the French pronunciation of the two words, les quarts, le carré. Maybe this way they have a better chance of having someone to write about who is showing the flag. They have Gael Monfils on the gentlemen’s side, Marion Bartoli on the ladies’. An error in the last edition had her losing in the sweet sixteen; in truth she made it past Svetlana Kuznetsova yesterday in a hard-hitting match to reach the semis, as did Francesca Schiavone, defending ladies’ champion, who came back from a 1-6 humiliation by a big Russian girl, Anastasia Pavuchenkova, to take the next two sets, 7-5, 7-5, with a marvelous combination of grit, power, and shrewdness. Miss Schiavone is supposed to be, at 30, “old,” and she indeed is a few years older than most of these long-limbed Russian and Dutch girls, as well as Miss Bartoli, but she certainly looked the less worn out at the end.
The issue did not even arise in the Roger Federer-Gael Monfils quarter final match yesterday, though the same age spread obtains. Moreover, Monfils is lighter, taller, and probably could beat Federer in a hundred-yard dash. Against David Ferrer in a thrilling five-setter the other day, he showed what he can do when he wants to catch difficult shots, racing to the net to retrieve drops a couple inches away from their second bounce and zooming from side to side with perfectly timed slides to retrieve Ferrer’s killer cross-courts.
But not this time. Federer is the stealth bomber in this tournament, having moved almost un-noticed into showdown time while the herd of independent minds was focusing on Nadal and Djokovic. He seems more fit, more at ease, more eager to be on the court than he was last year, or at the beginning of this year. He has yet to lose a set here, and he continued his record of being unbeatable by Frenchmen.
Doing so, he showed why it is frivolous to imagine that you can shake him with aces. Monfils relied on aces at a few crucial moments in the match against Ferrer, but this is vain tactic against a player who you know is going to get the ball in play much more often than not, no matter how hard you serve it. Federer’s own serves are the most accurate in this tournament, maybe in history, and no one seems able to “read” them, to know where they are going until they go there. He uses aces with frightful efficiency, reminding an opponent who got a point or two ahead who is in charge.
Moreover, Federer, who is playing better than at any time since losing his total dominance of men’s tennis two years ago, has all but laid bare the strategy he developed for this tournament. Not that he was hiding it, but he might have preferred to be less blatant until meeting Djokovic or Nadal.
It is a strategy of refusing the clay-court staple, the long exchange. Federer can hold an exchange as long as anyone else, but so can anyone else at this stage hold it against him, Murray rather less, perhaps, than the other tops. He therefore has to attack as quickly as possible, getting the ball in play with fast shots, drawing his opponent to mid-court or the net and then passing him. He wants to take away from Djokovic and Nadal the advantage they have in classic clay court tennis. This was effective against Monfils to an almost embarrassing degree, but will it work against Djokovic?
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal has a tough match coming up against Robin Soderling, who is always strong at Roland-Garros and is itching for a Slam here and showed he is in good form by the ease with which he disposed of Gilles Simon. One or the other goes against Murray or the unseeded Juan Ignacio Chela. The last square, if we think of it as semis, will be full of foreigners. There is no cause to gloat. It is a sad story. The French players are charming, funny, and well-mannered. They put on good shows until their last matches, when they crumbled against a group of players roughly the same age who are simply in another class.