But, curiously, Monfils has never done full justice to his talent. Heading into his title round contest at the Citi Open in Washington yesterday against Ivo Karlovic, this dynamic performer had never won an ATP World Tour 500 singles championship. For a player of his stature, that was an astonishing fact. He had won only five singles titles since turning professional in 2004, and, more importantly, Monfils had been beaten in 19 of the 24 finals he had contested over the course of his career. In fact, he had suffered defeat in the last three finals he had played, and had succeeded in only one of his last nine title round appointments.
That is why this highly appealing but often exasperating competitor must be so gratified after toppling Karlovic to claim the crown in Washington. Monfils is a man who has endured his share of agonizing setbacks. Two years ago at the U.S Open in the quarterfinals, he stood on the edge of an enormously uplifting victory against Roger Federer, but, after leading two sets to love and twice reaching match point in the fourth set, Monfils lost his nerve and bowed out in five sets. Earlier this year in Miami, he had five match points against Kei Nishikori. Once more, Monfils could not get the job done.
And yet, in his confrontation against Karlovic, Monfils was the player who seemed almost destined to lose before gaining a surprising 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-4 triumph over the 6’11”, 37-year-old from Croatia. A good case can be made that Monfils had no business winning this match. Karlovic was tantalizingly close to sealing a straight set victory. He had been unbreakable all week long, holding serve 55 consecutive times until he served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. With one more hold at that critical juncture, Karlovic, victorious in Newport the previous weekend,would have established himself as the first man 37 or older to collect titles in back to back weeks since Ken Rosewall back in 1973. The evergreen Rosewall was 38.
But Karlovic seemed overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment; in the end, all of his hard work went for naught. Here is how the Monfils-Karlovic skirmish unfolded. The No. 13 seed Karlovic—the oldest player ranked among the top 100 on the ATP World Tour—nearly broke Monfils right off the bat. A blazing forehand return winner carried him to break point in the first game of the match, but Monfils aced the big man down the T and held on. Karlovic raced to 1-1 at love with four consecutive aces. After Monfils held at love for 2-1, Karlovic released three more aces in a love hold for 2-2.
This was a server’s contest, and, in this era of protracted rallies, I found the quick points refreshing. Neither man lost a point on serve in the fifth and sixth games. Both men then held at 15 to make it 4-4. After Monfils took his serve at 30 for a 5-4 lead, Karlovic was tested in the tenth game. An ace gave him a 40-30 lead but an errant forehand volley from Karlovic locked the score at deuce.
Two points away from a first set triumph, Monfils was halted in his tracks. Karlovic released another ace and followed with a beautifully angled backhand volley winner. It was 5-5. Having missed that narrow opening, Monfils drifted into disarray. At 15-0 in the eleventh game, he double faulted. Karlovic advanced to 15-40, and then Monfils double faulted again, this time into the net.
Serving for the set at 6-5, Karlovic was unsettled. He trailed 0-40, but remained unruffled, winning four points in a row. At set point, Karlovic was beaten by a down the line backhand passing shot from Monfils, but the No. 13 seed swiftly earned a second set point. He stuck with a winning formula, serving-and-volleying forcefully, making a solid first volley, concluding the point with an overhead winner. Set to Karlovic, 7-5.
Both men remained essentially untouchable on serve as the second set progressed. On his way to 4-4, Karlovic swept 16 of 18 points on his delivery. Monfils ably stood his ground as well. But, in the ninth game, the Frenchman squandered a 40-15 lead. After Karlovic rallied to deuce, Monfils aced his adversary down the T at 126 MPH to garner a third game point, but promptly double faulted. A thundering, run around forehand second serve return brought Karlovic to break point, but Monfils fought his way back to deuce. Another dazzling forehand return gave Karlovic another break point. He did not waste it, chipping a deep backhand approach, setting up a solid volley, and then putting away an overhead unhesitatingly.
Karlovic could not have asked for more. And yet, up a set and a break, serving for the match, on the verge of securing the biggest title of his career, Karlovic seemed far too conscious of what he was doing. He netted a backhand first volley timidly for 0-15, punched a routine forehand volley long, and then drifted to 0-40 as Monfils punished a second serve return for an outright winner. But, down triple break point, Karlovic responded with temerity. He stormed forward behind a fine body serve, made a sound volley, and put away an overhead:15-40. He sent a second serve ace out wide: 30-40. A perfect serve led to a winning first volley: deuce.
Karlovic had erased three break points to put himself two points away from collecting the title. But then he popped up a drop volley, allowing Monfils to race forward and lace a passing shot directly at Karlovic, who had no way to respond. At break point down, Karlovic sent a forehand volley long off a high return. That abysmal mistake was costly. Monfils had somehow survived, breaking back for 5-5. Both men held for 6-6. Karlovic had won 23 of 38 tie-breaks in 2016 while Monfils had a record of 6-5. Across his career, Karlovic was 324-318 while Monfils was 151-106.
This one was monumental for both players as Karlovic had his heart set on closing it out and claiming the title, while Monfils was determined to stay alive and move on to a third set with confidence and momentum. Both players were very disciplined on serve. Karlovic reached match point with Monfils serving at 5-6. The Frenchman directed a first serve to the backhand at 116 MPH, and Karlovic stiffly chipped a backhand return.That crucial shot landed long. At 6-6, Monfils produced another unstoppable first serve. Serving at 6-7, Karlovic bungled a forehand down the line into the net off a short return from Monfils. That was the only point in the entire sequence that went against the server. The unwavering Monfils took it in timely fashion, and improbably he was on level turf at one set all.
At 1-1, 30-40 in the third and final set, a seemingly downcast Karlovic punched a backhand first volley long. Monfils had the break. He held for 3-1 at 15, serving three aces in that game. After Karlovic struggled before holding in the fifth game, Monfils held at love for 4-2. Karlovic closed the gap to 4-3 and then attacked his way to a 0-30 lead on the Monfils serve in the eighth game. But Monfils served an ace for 15-30, swept the next three points, and travelled to 5-3. Two games later, serving for the match, Monfils released a second serve ace for 30-15. He surged to 40-15 with a scintillating backhand passing shot down the line winner. Then he produced an unstoppable first serve down the T to wrap up a hard earned 5-7, 7-6 (6) 6-4 victory.
For Karlovic, it was a heartbreaking loss. He was one point away from taking back to back singles titles on two different surfaces, but failed to finish the task. Tennis matches are lost as well as won, and undoubtedly Karlovic had himself largely to blame for not coming through. The sport’s most fearsome server lost his delivery when it counted the most, when he was serving for the championship. The 37-year-old will lament this missed opportunity for a long time.
But for Gael Monfils, victory was a reward for not showboating, as he once would have done under these circumstances. He was strikingly mature, tremendously self controlled, and as professional as he has ever been. Monfils rises after this win to No. 14 in the world, and the top ten seems well within his reach. But he has not been widely viewed as enigmatic by most learned observers for no reason. He might take his biggest tournament triumph yet and use it as a springboard toward larger goals and taller tasks, or he could swerve into a tailspin and keep us shaking our heads for some time to come.
Gael Monfils has always been both a beguiling and bewildering figure, but this much is certain: he will remain among the game’s most arresting performers as long as he plays tennis for a living.