It began with opera, rolled on through the beat of tom-toms from high up in the stands and ended in despair for the raucous 15,000 spectators packing every seat at the Omnipalais as their hero, Gael Monfils, double faulted on match point to hand an exhausted and very relieved Novak Djokovic his first ATP Masters 1000 Series title of the year with a dramatic 6-2, 5-7, 7-6 (3) victory.
The triumph for Djokovic was sweet indeed, because he had been in the finals of four previous 1000 Series events during the year — Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome and Cincinnati — and lost them all. For a few moments, the possibility of losing a fifth became very real as the indefatigable Frenchman bounced back from a break down in that third set — just as he had in the second — to take the match into a deciding tiebreaker.
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And it was there that the difference showed. Djokovic had been forced into all manner of errors in the previous hour as his inventive opponent teased him with a variety of returns, including some cleverly angled drop shots. But when it came to crunch time, the Serb refused to be induced into any kind of mistake.
As another long rally of 20 strokes or more developed, it was Monfils who put a forehand long to give Djokovic the mini-break and a 4-2 lead. On the eighth point, it was the same story — Monfils erring on the forehand after the ball had crossed the net 25 times. The double fault on the first match point at 6-3 was cruel, but on balance, Djokovic deserved this triumph, which takes him into the ATP World Tour Finals in London next week on a roll, having won back-to-back titles here and in Basel.
When he led by a set and 3-0 in the second, the occasion threatened to turn into an anti-climax after the rousing opening that had featured a troupe of singers performing excerpts from Carmen. But Monfils makes his own music and proved himself a fighter of inspirational proportions here this week, giving the tournament a huge lift by becoming the second Frenchman in two years to reach the final. Last year, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga went on to win and the French Federation had built on that success to such good effect that overall attendance has increased by 15,000 to reach a record total of 130,000.
No one will feel he did not get his money’s worth at the end of this 2-hour, 43-minute battle that was played amid the kind of frenzied atmosphere that Monfils not only loves, but also helps promote. He demands support from his fans, and they give it to him willingly by waving French flags, clapping to the beat of the tom-tom and sweeping the stadium with Mexican waves at changeovers.
Monfils switched on the drama by breaking back for 2-3 in that second set with a lovely drop shot and then, having chased everything in sight during an exhausting game, found himself at break point again at 5-5 when the Serb netted a forehand. Up went the arms, and the response was an ear-splitting roar. Instantly able to refocus, Monfils put in a deep service return and Djokovic netted. After coolly serving out for the set, Monfils rallied yet again at the start of the third from 0-2 and then, after consecutive double faults had cost him another break, from 1-4.
But in the end, the more experienced player came through. Roger Rasheed, Monfils’ Australian coach, had few complaints afterward, knowing how much effort his man had put into a memorable encounter.
“But I was pleased to hear Gael say afterwards that he had been too passive in the tiebreak,” Rasheed said. “That means he understands what he did wrong. He just got tentative on a couple of service returns and Novak just whacked them away. But he’s learning.”
Djokovic did not disguise the pressure he felt as Monfils refused to let him close out the match from such a strong position.
“Of course, I was concerned,” he said. “In the last four 1000 finals I have played this year, I lost, so it was kind of in my head. I was thinking about it and it wasn’t a pleasant feeling, especially when I saw Gael getting into his rhythm. So I was kind of fighting the big pressure from the crowd. I was trying to hold my nerves. In the end of the match I threw all my emotions out and was happy.”
Richard Evans, who commentated at Wimbledon on BBC Radio for 20 years, has been covering tennis since the 1960s and has reported on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is the author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in “Open Tennis.” He lives in Florida but is still on the tour 20 weeks in the year.