Historically, the French Open for French men has been tough. Yannick Noah was the last to raise La Coupe des Mousquetaire 32 years ago. This year, however, a preponderance — 30 percent, in fact — of players into the fourth round are French.
Gilles Simon (No. 12) , Jo-Wilfred Tsonga (No. 14), and Gael Monfils (No. 13) advanced on Friday, while unseeded Jeremy Chardy defeated David Goffin (No. 17) in three tidy sets, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, and Richard Gasquet (No. 20) also did his country proud, defeating Kevin Anderson (No. 15), 4-6 7-6(4) 7-5 6-4, on Saturday.
Gasquet flopped on his back, after looping a forehand winner down the line past the 6-foot-7 South African. Crowds exploded in appreciation. If he had lost, crowds might have booed. Such is the burden they lay directly on the shoulders of their tennis heroes.
Monfils and Simon are part of a quartet on the bottom half of the men’s singles draw. Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka — both French-speaking Swiss — are about to launch their best efforts to gain two spots in the quarterfinals against them. Monfils faces Federer, while Wawrinka will play Simon.
None of these men are new on the Grand Slam scene. They are, instead, the stalwarts that have worn through thousands of pairs of shoes sliding on the red clay. All four are former Top 10 players or currently ranked in the Top 10.
Federer, the highest seed at No. 2, made his debut into the Top 10 in May 2002. He reached No. 1 in the world less than two years later, February 2004. He holds the record for most weeks at No. 1 — 302. Wawrinka, seeded No. 8, first breathed rarified air among the 10 best in May 2008. His triumph over Rafael Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open rocketed his ranking to No. 3 in January of that year. He’s remained in the elite ever since, currently at No. 9 in the ATP rankings.
Gilles Simon cracked the Top 10 in October 2008. His highest ranking of No. 6 was in January 2009, while Monfils hit the Top 10 in February 2009; his highest ranking of No. 7 came in July 2011. Monfils is one of a few who can say he has beaten Federer consecutively on red clay: the Davis Cup final last November and Monte Carlo this spring.
Simon previously reached the fourth round in Paris in 2011 and 2013. He has never advanced further in 10 appearances. In fact, over his 13-year career, he has only reached the quarterfinal of one major, the U. S. Open in 2009. Yesterday, he defeated friend, countryman and wildcard Nicolas Mahut, 6-2, 6-7(6), 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1.
Simon is very familiar with five-set tennis, and knows his opponent tomorrow, Wawrinka, will be a formidable challenge.
“He can play very well everywhere, and that’s his strength,” Simon said about Wawrinka, reported by the ATP. “He has very strong shots. He has a beautiful serve. When he plays well, you’d better be ready.”
Their head-to-head at ATP-level is tied at 2-2, but the one noteworthy match was in 2012 at Roland Garros. Wawrinka won a third-round thriller between the two, 7-5, 6-7(5), 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-2.
“Gilles is always a tough player; he’s difficult to handle,” Wawrinka said to the ATP of his next opponent. “You have to be aggressive and really catch opportunities when they’re there.”
Speaking of Wawrinka’s ‘beautiful serve,’ his first-serve percentage over three rounds has steadily improved from 78 percent to 93 percent. Same with his second-serve percentage: from 58% to 60%. He’s also maintained a positive winner to error ratio throughout, which is not true for Simon.
The x-factor in their match will undoubtedly be fan support. Although Wawrinka is well-liked, Simon belongs to France. The same holds true for the match between Federer and Monfils.
“Paris is different; [it] is magic,” Monfils told the press, reported by the ATP. “I don’t know how, but I’m here… I think I can show some new emotion, I can show some tennis and I can show some side of me I don’t even know. I think the crowd just brings me something, something else, and I think it just showed a bit more today.”
Federer and Monfils have met on three occasions in Paris — in the semifinals of 2008, and the quarterfinals of 2009 and 2011. All were Federer victories.
Monfils was not the player, even in 2011, he has been the last year. An extraordinary athlete that Federer once said was the most athletic on tour, Monfils seems to have laid aside struggles he has had with coaches. He also seems to have accepted who is on and off court, elevating his tennis skills and potential above the trickster shot-maker we’ve watched with equal portions of awe and disappointment.
“Just hit the ball, Gael” many have surely thought — and probably screamed — at a man they have expected and wanted to perform better. Looking at the records of each man and comparing them certainly leads to the conclusion that Federer will win the match, but this is a Grand Slam — in Paris.
And, to a certain extent, all bets are off.
“He’s played me tough throughout my career,” Federer said, per sports.ndtv.com. “Especially the last four, five years now. He’s been tougher for me to play against.”
If you were lucky to hear the roars during the last two sets of Monfils’ five-set thrilled against Pablo Cuevas on Friday, you know the air of excitement fans can bring to a stadium, especially Stade Roland Garros.
The thing is, Federer is beloved by the French, too.
They love his style, his temperament and his elegance. A souvenir t-shirt for sale on the grounds reads, “Without style, playing and winning are not enough.” It fits France’s love of Federer to a tee.
Federer has not dropped a set en route to the fourth round. He has played proficiently, yet has been a bit cranky, somewhat frustrated that he can’t hit the ball through the court. Last year at this stage, he lost to Ernests Gulbis in five sets. Nonetheless, he is seeking his 18th major title and has to be acutely aware of his age and the fact that it’s been three years since winning a major.
“I may stop the following day or I may go for another five years, I don’t know,” Federer said, according to the BBC. “What I can tell you is that if I win Wimbledon or a Grand Slam, I’ll be happy…extremely happy.”
Wawrinka and Simon, plus Federer and Monfils, are third up tomorrow. They are scheduled for Suzanne-Lenglen Court and Court Philippe-Chatrier, respectively. The weather forecast predicts temperatures around 60*F and the oft-chance of a shower. It will only matter in regard to how well and quickly each man adapts to the clay. This is one of the biggest challenges at all French Opens.
What will matter, in the end, are their minds and how they handle the occasion. They have worked for just these moments: Wawrinka at 30, Simon at 29, Monfils at 28, and Federer at 33.