Gael Monfils and Stan Wawrinka are genuine late-bloomers—perhaps the only two pros to ever find their best tennis on the cusp of 30—and very good friends, too. Somehow, before today’s round of 16 match at the French Open, they had gone six years on the tour without playing one another. That fact boggles the mind, but gets a little more legible when you realize that for these seeded pals to meet up, they’d both need to go deep into a tournament, and for all their collective talent, you can never count on either of them to show up. Fortunately, both players did show up today for two fine sets, until Monfils, the 15th seed and final Frenchman in the draw, imploded to lose 7-5, 7-6, 6-2.
This point from the first set is pretty close to a perfect primer on Gael Monfils’s talents. In about 20 seconds he’ll neatly disabuse you of two silly assumptions you may have made about him. First, the notion that any tennis ball could ever fall outside of his defensive range (look at the forehand he somehow slides 10 feet into, and then not just retrieves, but crushes crosscourt); and second, that notion that you could ever predict how he’s going to hit the ball. The tight angle on his last inside-in forehand is just so... strange, so reckless and so characteristically Monfils—it’s a shot that would occur to no one else, a thought that flits only through his mind and no one else’s.
In general this match pitted Wawrinka’s heavy groundstrokes against Monfils’s limber defense, and through two sets, that duel did not disappoint. The third seed worked Monfils around the court with his serious pace, but Monfils met the challenge, delivering more than one of his trademark splits while chasing down faraway balls, and the occasional passing shot gem, like this one:
Monfils’s best opportunity to stay in the match came during the second-set tiebreak, after he’d saved a bushel of match points with Wawrinka up 6-3. In the final moments of this tiebreak, Monfils could’ve used a little more of his usual inventive spark to shake up the patterns of the points—mixing in some other spins, luring Stan to net—because getting in a long baseline rally with an in-rhythm Stan Wawrinka is a death sentence for most players. Watch the final point of the second set, which was, effectively, the final the point of the match: Monfils is sending all the balls back, but he can’t manage anything close to the depth of Wawrinka’s hitting, and the result is an inevitability. The only difference between Monfils and any other poor sap in this type of point is that Monfils ends up in a perfect split.
From there on, it was over. Monfils, slump-shouldered and down two sets despite all his efforts, got broken twice. Wawrinka, who could very well sail right through to the finals here, closed out the match easily and now moves onto the quarterfinals to play Marin Cilic.