Many see the 2004 Wimbledon final as the day Roger Federer became the men's tennis player of the 21st century. He had come back to beat Andy Roddick 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 6-4 on a rain-soaked Sunday, the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 Wimbledon final in 22 years.
"I threw the kitchen sink at him, but he went to the bathroom and got his tub," Roddick memorably said after.
The turning point of the match, and perhaps much more, was that second delay. Roddick was up a break in the third set, and Federer returned refreshed to take the second of his now seven Wimbledon titles. I remember watching on NBC, delays and all, the summer following my senior year of high school. What I recall most about the telecast wasn't Federer or Roddick.
It was a French boy named Gael Monfils, 17, who beat Brit Miles Kasiri 7-5, 7-6 (6). During one of the men's final delays, NBC showed a portion of the boys final, which was scheduled one hour before Federer-Roddick on Court 3. It was likely the first time U.S. tennis viewers got a glimpse of the most exciting, frustrating, head-scratching, eye-popping player of this generation.
And that's the role Monfils has played in men's tennis the last nine years. Federer, Roddick, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray grab all the headlines. The lanky, 6-foot-5 Monfils, who has never finished in the year-end top 10 (h/t Roddick), squeezes into the picture, somehow.
Some highlights: His 2-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 9-7, two-day French Open marathon loss to Fabio Fognini that ended after 9:30 in 2010, the only light left being the scoreboard. This year's Australian Open, where he beat Lu Yen-Hsun 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 1-6, 8-6, despite double faulting on four straight match points. This shot, among others:
This 2004 Monfils-Kasiri analysis from John McEnroe is particularly interesting: "You realize how good Federer and Roddick are because now you can at least see the ball a little bit," McEnroe said during the NBC telecast, according to the Washington Post. "The ball isn't struck at such an amazing pace. You take it for granted."
On Monday at Roland Garros, Nadal caused gasps by losing the first set (and nearly the second) against an unknown German. Later, Monfils swooped in and became the spectacle of the day (well, night). He knocked off No. 5 Tomas Berdych 7-6 (8), 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-7 (4), 7-5 in more than four hours, a match that ended after 8:30 in Paris, Monfils' place of birth.
It was everything. Monfils' clashing Asics outfit -- colleague Jon Wertheim described it aptly -- with one sock shorter than the other, a stark contrast from Berdych's bland all-white H&M kit.
"I've been guilty of color combinations that bad," McEnroe said on NBC. "I've got to let it go."
Monfils' sliding into FedEx signage, his dives, his flails. His crowd. Nearly full Court Philippe Chatrier mixed the usual Allez! screams with the wave, which at once earned polite applause from the Frenchman before he served in the third set.
"I always say they give me wings," Monfils said. "I feel like I'm flying on the court. It's something special. I can't really explain it."
Monfils said he went into the match telling himself not to shout or express himself too much. But, he added, "I'm a fighter, a competitor, so that's my spirit." Maybe it wasn't always vintage, what-was-that Monfils play, but the atmosphere made up for it.
"C'est magique," Monfils repeated both in his on-court interview with French TV and his news conference shortly thereafter.
Monfils' status at this year's French Open is also a descriptor of his career. Wild card. A right knee injury knocked him out for four months of 2012 and knocked his ranking down to a year-end No. 78. He fell out of the top 100 before winning a Challenger event in Bordeaux two weeks ago and making the final in Nice last week. The time on court is taking its toll.
"I'm very tired, but I won," said Monfils, who faces the mercurial Latvian Ernests Gulbis in the second round. "I made it in front of my family," his mother, Sylvette, is from Martinique, and his father, Rufin, is from Guadeloupe.
Monfils called this victory one of the best of his career -- No. 1 is the first time he beat his father. That a first-round win can be among Monfils' all-time list, nine years after that Wimbledon telecast, is certainly sad. He won three of the four junior majors in 2004. He's captured just four ATP tournaments since. Still, he has that magic.
"What I want to say is when you decide to play tennis," Monfils said, walking briskly toward the players' locker room, "you're born to play big matches like this."