NEW YORK – Gaël Monfils had been having a Cinderella of a U.S. Open, building something special round by round in a way he never had before: calm, rational, in control.
He blew away a surprisingly flat and erratic Roger Federer for two sets on Thursday night in the quarterfinals and, in the fourth set, had two chances to put the match away and play Marin Cilic on Saturday for the opportunity to reach his first Grand Slam final
Monfils couldn't convert those chances. Right then and there, the clock struck midnight, Monfils's dream turned into a pumpkin, and the Frenchman turned back into his Coke-drinking alter-ego, La Monf.
And five-time U.S. Open champion Federer added another chapter to his incredible legacy with a dramatic 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 victory before a delirious pro-Federer full house on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
It was a match that was as dramatic as tennis fans hoped it would be, although the drama didn't play out quite the way most would have predicted. For one thing, it certainly wasn't in the script that Federer would be down two sets to none after an hour and 18 minutes.
He was flat, his timing shaken by the gusty winds, and Monfils didn't miss. For a few nanoseconds there, it almost seemed as though Federer might be out in straight sets and the U.S. Open's Super Saturday might end up including a semi-final matchup between Monfils and Cilic – not exactly in keeping with that day's fine and storied tradition.
"I was getting on his serve, and I had opportunities, but I was just not hitting my forehand very well. Then on the serve I started to either overserve or whatever I was doing. It wasn't working. But I think definitely something to do with Gaël, the way he was playing me. But I knew I could play better tennis, and I knew that once I started to play better I would be in control again," Federer said. "Every time it was a close point, you know, deuce or whatever, I would miss a forehand by this much. That was making the difference really. It was a tough first couple of sets and it was actually quite frustrating. The wind was blowing so it wasn't helping finding the rhythm."
Even in the third set, there weren't too many cracks in the Monfils armor – until, at 4-4, Monfils double-faulted twice - two of his 10 on the night – to hand Federer the break, and basically the set. And, basically, the match.
It still was far from over, though. But there's the big difference between a brilliantly talented player like Monfils and a brilliantly talented player like Federer: Federer wouldn't let go. He wasn't going to let Monfils have it without a fight. He was going to hang in there until umpire Carlos Ramos called "Game, set and Match" and the two hugged at the net. He was going to will himself to play batter, and roll the dice.
"I still thought the finish line was far for Gaël, I knew I could play better tennis. And I was feeling good, but when I was down two match points I wasn’t feeling so great any more," Federer said during a giddy on-court interview after the match. "I thought, this is it, this is the last point, man. Go down fighting. Don’t miss an easy shot and don’t let him have it."
Monfils had said earlier in the week that there was a fair bit of luck involved in his road to the quarter-finals. But Federer was the one who had the champion's luck on the first match point, at 4-5, 15-40 in the fourth set.
Monfils played those points practically sitting in the stands behind the court, willing Federer to miss rather than taking it to him.
Federer served, came into the net and prepared to hit a swinging forehand volley. He told himself not to make it too wide; the stiff wind on the stadium court had already played enough havoc with his fine-tuned game. Federer ended up hitting the ball right down the middle of the court and Monfils had a shot at a passing shot that could have gone just about anywhere. But he clearly wasn't expecting to have a look at it, and ended up floating a ball that seemed to hang in the air for an eternity.
"Freeze-frame," Federer thought.
"Okay ... No way!", he then thought.
"It's all right. It’s out. I’m all right," was his final thought on that.
"It was one of those moments where you got the back against the wall and hope to get a bit lucky and you hope to play exactly the right shots that you need, or that he completely just messes it up. Either way works as long as you get out of it," Federer said during his press conference. "But clearly it's not a great feeling, because you feel it's not in your control anymore really. So I'm very, very happy to have found a way tonight."
After that narrow escape, it was just scorekeeping.
It wasn't the first time Monfils had been in similar fifth-set situation, although not quite the same circumstances. After going down two sets to none against Andy Murray at the French Open this year, Monfils charged back to win the third and fourth and push it to a fifth set. He won six total points in a 6-0 fifth set.
It's likely even Monfils himself thought that the opportunity had passed him by, and that there was no point in hoping there would be another one. He recognized that Federer was throwing the full arsenal at him, using his slice, being more aggressive, serving better, and he wasn't finding answers to the many and varied questions his opponent was posing.
At the very least, that's the way Monfils played. The fifth set was almost embarrassing; he reverted into pumpkin form in that he acted as though he wasn't taking any of it seriously any more. All of sudden, the rolled ankles and the other bruises that adrenaline had masked started to hurt. Perhaps that's not what was churning inside; perhaps he still wanted it badly, still thought he had a chance. But that's how he coped with it outwardly and, in doing so, had no chance. His body language was only tonic to an increasingly confident Federer.
"I think, you know, what happened in the fifth is more that during the match I was focused like from the first point to the fifth (set), and then sort of I have a little drop. Because I will say not really used to do this. Sometimes, as I told to you, to keep my emotion (inside fatigues) me a little bit. It's tough to handle it. And then it's a matter of five minutes. You know, I think I was down five minutes. Roger just jump on me," Monfils said. "He could easy. I don't know, maybe be relaxed for those first two games and then maybe it would be another story. Those two games came like so quick, and then, you know, it's tough."
Federer didn't even give him a ghost of a chance. He saw that finish line that he was convinced was too far in the distance for his opponent, and he saw it as if it were lit up in neon.
Early on in that formality of a fifth set, the 33-year-old Swiss hit a drop shot the likes of which he had nearly zero success with during the match because of Monfils's blazing speed. This one, somehow, worked. Because everything was working at that point. In turn, Monfils decided he would hit one of his own on the very next point.
What did Federer do? He motored up to it and instead of hitting a return drop shot, or a short slice, or something more typical, he loaded up and RIPPED a crosscourt backhand for a clean winner.
All that was missing after that was a roar. Because that was the champion's statement, right there.
Later, Federer said the crowd had given him wings.
"I felt very much a warm support for me, wanting me to go out, you know, fighting and believing that I could turn this thing around, because that's the feeling the crowd gave me. I think when the crowd gives you that. it grows your belief that you can hit better shots, you can dig out more tough balls, you can serve better. All that just helps solidify your belief," he said. "I must say tonight was actually quite emotional for me. I really thought the crowds were incredible. They definitely got me through the match out here tonight. I really enjoyed it, and I can't wait for the next match to come around."
In the twilight of his career these are, in the end, the moments Federer plays for. And as long as he plays, wherever he plays, he will always be able to count on that support, which doesn't make it any less special.
It was an anticlimactic ending to a great tournament for Monfils. That ending is what most will remember, his collapse and the great comeback by Federer. But it doesn't erase all the great tennis he played to get there.
As talented as he is, Monfils has rarely demonstrated proof that he has a champion's heart to go along with the champion's talent. Few do; every player comes to the court with his or her own unique combination of skills. The rare ones that have every base covered, the Federers and the Nadals of the world, are champions.
The rest shake hands and go home, usually at the appropriate time. Monfils might have taken a few steps towards a promotion into that category with his effort in New York. The next time, perhaps he'll go home later.
Meanwhile, Federer will play on Saturday against No. 14 Marin Cilic of Croatia for the opportunity to get into his second consecutive Grand Slam final.