Momentum is a fickle beast for Gael Monfils

Dear readers, today’s piece will be a lesson in the craziness, the by-the-minute topsy-turviness, the mayhem that tennis is capable of producing.

The stage? Men’s quarterfinal matchup number two, Gael Monfils, the last Frenchman in the draw, the shining hope of the host nation, against Andy Murray, the staid Scot, the Wimbledon-conqueror himself, the perfect foil for the showman Monfils. This match almost went exactly like I said it would, with Monfils gutting out a five-setter. Had he kept his momentum going, I might have been completely right.

The match began at around 6 PM in Paris, leaving our players the better part of three hours and change in which to contest it before the sun set. Murray easily took the first two sets, 6-4, 6-1. You’d be forgiven for thinking the effervescent Frenchman was out of the running at that point. But nothing is easy or taken for granted in tennis, especially with someone who can feed off the crowd as much as Monfils. He’s like late Jimmy Connors in this regard: just about unstoppable with the crowd behind him, and playing in his home country, you knew this was going to happen.

The crowd picked him up, willed him to play better, and it was off to the races for Monfils, one of the best movers in the game and a spectacular athlete. He got himself a late break and took the third set, and positively ran away with the fourth. Murray looked cooked. Murray looked done. He kept shouting at his box, tapping his leg, moving slowly after points, looking like he was trying his darnedest to get off the court as quickly as possible; time was on his side- what could possibly go wrong? With the light fading, all the momentum in Monfils’s court and the fourth set wrapped up, the tournament referee came out onto the court at about 9 PM.

Everyone, including John McEnroe, calling the match in the booth, expected the fifth set to be postponed until tomorrow, which would afford Rafael Nadal an extra day of rest. Nadal lost the first set to David Ferrer in the other quarterfinal but then found his stroke and wasn’t really threatened as he cruised through the next three for a spot in the semis. It also figured to be the second time that Murray’s match would be delayed by darkness, the first being that marathon against Philipp Kohlschreiber that almost sent him home early. After all, they only had about 20-30 minutes, at most, to play. Combine that with the preference of officials to stop the match when the set score adds to an even number, and you can understand Murray’s disgust and surprise when they decided to play on.

But Murray held the first serve of the set, always an advantage in the decider (if you can get a quick break after a hold, suddenly you’re looking at going up 3-0, always a tough prospect to come back from). He looked shaky for the first two points. But then he found his stroke at 30-all in that first game, fist-pumping himself back into the match. He even broke out Lleyton Hewitt’s vintage lawnmower move. (It happens at about the 1:30 mark. Side note, this video really goes to illustrate what a poor sport Hewitt was in his prime. Just saying.)

Simultaneously, Monfils forgot how to hit a ball. He absolutely gift-wrapped the match to Murray. So much so that he got held at love, 6-0, and they got off the court before it got too dark. It was shocking. I watched it thinking, how could he have all the momentum, get the added gift of playing when your opponent isn’t feeling great, and just fold despite tremendous crowd support? He kept going big, waiting for his shot to start finding those lines and painting those corners, but he kept missing by wider and wider margins. Murray at that point knew he didn’t have to go for broke and didn’t, he just let Monfils play himself out of the tournament. Monfils hit a staggering 10 unforced errors in the set, which lasted all of 24 minutes. It was hard to watch how quickly he fell apart.

I have no idea what happened there. I would guess that Monfils just got a little trigger-happy and assumed his stroke just couldn’t be lost. He thought he had Murray on the ropes, and he did. All he had to do was play average, and the crowd support and Murray’s bad legs would have taken him home, or at least sent him to the locker room with a nice lead. Instead, he got greedy, couldn’t hit the brakes, and psyched himself out, to the point that he argued with the chair umpire about whether or not he was ready after the fourth game (that even-game rule I mentioned played a role here). It didn’t matter.

Monfils was spectacular clawing his way back into the match. The clay allows him to showcase his athleticism even more than most surfaces, and he produced some of the most amazing sliding desperation shots to work himself back into points. It was awesome to see. But volatility is the price you pay with him. That volatility led to a ridiculously abrupt shift in momentum; with Monfils coming out on the wrong end of an embarrassing fifth set collapse. If he can harness that energy and momentum and not play himself out of matches that he is going to win, he’ll be a champion. If he can’t, he’s still thrilling to watch.

Andrea Petkovic of Germany will make her first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, having dispatched onetime finalist Sara Errani in the quarters. She faces upstart Simona Halep.

Andrea Petkovic of Germany will make her first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, having dispatched onetime finalist Sara Errani in the quarters. She faces upstart Simona Halep.

I’ll update the women tomorrow: this match demanded a full piece today. Briefly though, Simona Halep tore through Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-2, 6-2. Halep didn’t play great the whole way through, but Kuznetsova was dreadful: 23 unforced errors to 11 winners, (a more even 20-18 ratio for Halep) and a failure to capitalize on break points will hurt you against a younger player who is on a hot streak. Andrea Petkovic dispatched Sara Errani by the same score, ruining yet another one of my predictions. Oh, well. Petkovic was simply better at protecting her serve, winning 56% of points on her first serve and 50% on her second serve (incredible side note: she only had to take FOUR second serves for the entire match, with one double fault.), while Errani went 39% and 17%, respectively. That just won’t cut it, plain and simple.

More tomorrow. Keep it right here.