Stan Wawrinka was nice enough to give me some tickets on Friday night so I could watch his match against Gaël Monfils at Rod Laver Arena. I wasn't disappointed at all by the show.
The intensity of the first set was a rarity. Both players went for rallies, with diagonals on backhands, forehands played by turning around the backhand and some down-the-line acceleration when needed. But it was their defending and counter-punching abilities that often allowed them to push the points to very long and high-level rallies. Each player had his moment in the set where you thought they'd take it. Both went through periods of high confidence where the play was effortless, and also moments of calm and clear-headedness, which isn't as easy as it sounds for them. It was an efficient mixture that allowed both to win points.
But both players also went through tough moments, where hurry came instead of calm. They also made some bad choices and hit fewer first serves in as the set progressed. It left the door open for each to take it down. Two or three points in the tiebreak decided it. Monfils broke down and Stan was very strong at that moment, using the best one-handed backhand on tour to win the battles. He finally took that set and, from that moment, the match took a new face because the Frenchman basically gave up. He only won two of the next 16 games before finally losing 7-6, 6-2, 6-3.
Why did Gaël break down like this? I think that he found himself without an answer after the tiebreak and didn't know how to respond. Or, more appropriately, he felt that what he was doing wasn't working at all, didn't find how to search for something else or, simply, didn't want to keep fighting. He could have worked out of it and gotten Wawrinka into a little slump, but, no. He just thought that his opponent was too strong and refused to fight.
It's a pity because Monfils was close, with the first set only decided on a couple of points. If he had fought all the way with the same mindset, he could have taken one or two sets and pushed to a decisive fifth. It's one of the most fascinating things about those five-setters. When battles are well-balanced, each player can benefit from his strong periods and by the weaker ones of his opponent. The match isn't decided until the end. In those kind of matches, everything can happen, even when one is outrageously dominated. Not a single player (excepted Nadal maybe) can be at his best during three consecutive sets, so the rival always has an opportunity to come back if he keeps fighting and remains ready to jump on his first chance. When he succeeds in making the opponent doubt his abilities (no matter the lead), he still has a chance to win. A five-set match demands a fighting spirit from the beginning to the end. Those matches are the big ones won by the big champions. Those matches are the ones that open the door to history.
I'm now wishing that our young players will be taught the history of our sport, the weight of tradition and the respect due to those tournaments. Trying his best until the end isn't a necessity, but a duty. A Grand Slam has to be respected. One should go out of the court after having tried everything possible, in being physically and mentally exhausted. It's necessary in order to get that tiny sliver of a chance to win that trophy and Monfils owed it to France to try to put his name on that trophy. Our country (I'm French, if you hadn't already realized) isn't well represented at all compared to the number of people playing tennis and to the huge amount of money given to train the young players.
Perhaps it's an education issue. It's our responsibility as teachers to teach young players the meaning of these tournaments and the proper respect they're owed. Playing in a Grand Slam is an honor that has to be treated with dignity. In France, we still have a lot to teach about that matter. Not many Australians, Serbians or Spaniards leave the court without a bit of their soul out there. Let that teach us the lesson for the future.