Friday September 5th, 2014

NEW YORK -- For pure entertainment value, Gael Monfils is tennis’s best buy -- a long armed, pogo-legged wonder who could just as easily be dunking a basketball as swinging a racket. His knack as a showman is nonpareil.

What’s more, he doesn’t really see what he does as work. The problem is most audiences can’t tell whether this is because he enjoys tennis so much -- or because he can pretty much take it or leave it. Two days ago, in a news conference before his U.S. Open quarterfinal match against Roger Federer, Monfils seemed to make a case for the latter. “For me, tennis is a sport,” he said. “It’s not a job. Sometimes if I’m fed up with that, you know, just leave it.”

It’s enough to make one wonder what Monfils' next move will be now, after letting slip an opportunity to beat the man he recently called “the greatest tennis player we ever had.” If he had held his nerve in the fourth set, Monfils might’ve been able to say he beat the GOAT, but Federer rallied for a 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 win.

Relive point-by-point Federer's classic U.S. Open win against Monfils

Roger Federer reaches U.S. Open semis with captivating comeback

But before that, Monfils had toned down his traditionally flamboyant play, and turned the pro-Federer crowd in his favor. Early on, he even rendered Federer a mere spectator too. Though Monfils’ service game wasn’t as strong as it had been in previous four matches -- which saw him broken just five times while he failed to drop a set -- it was solid enough for him to build a two-sets lead on Federer in just an hour and 18 minutes.

When Federer broke Monfils in the sixth game of the third set, it looked less like the beginning of a Swiss comeback than a few loose points. Monfils’ long lobbed backhand at 15-30 down and double fault at 30-all were on their way to be anecdotal strokes when the Frenchman reached double match point at 5-4 in the fourth set. Instead of booking a trip to his second Grand Slam semifinal, Monfils suddenly sagged. Federer wiped away the first match point with sizzling forehand at midcourt. Then another from the baseline.

Data visualization: Comparing styles of play between Federer and Monfils

Two points later, after smacking a service winner down the T to get to five-all, the 33-year-old Federer came off more like a kid than a father; he literally skipped for joy. “I’m not sure I ever saved match point before in a Slam,” said Federer who will go on to play two-time major semifinalist Marin Cilic on Saturday, a man against whom he owns a 5-0 career record. “When guys wish you luck before the match, that’s when you hope it’s going to kick in.”

After that Federer rally, Monfils’ night was pretty much done. It didn't have to be. Despite the rash of double faults (10 in all, against six aces), he still got 62 percent of his first serves in play, which was more than Federer (57 percent) could say for himself. Monfils was smart about coming to net and effective too, winning 17 of 23 approaches. He played well enough to win, just not for long enough. Once Monfils let up, in that crucial fourth set, his tournament was done.

Watch: Monfils tanks point after getting angry during match against Dimitrov

Mailbag: Is this a resurgent run for Gael Monfils, the entertainer?

His defeat, for some, must seem like sweet tennis justice. Federer, after all, is so obsessive about winning to the point where not even a record 17 major trophies is enough. Monfils? He can’t possibly be serious about succeeding if he hasn’t employed a coach for over a year and a half, or so goes the argument. Never mind that Federer went without one for even longer when he was at the peak of his powers.

Monfils just conjured his best-ever tennis in a Slam. That he got as far as he did -- and nearly beat top-seed Novak Djokovic just a month earlier at Rogers Cup -- was of little consolation. When he met the media again after his match against Federer, all the joy that was in his face in the beginning of the match had drained away. “I need a bit of time to forget this,” he said. “But then, you know, it gives me more motivation that I could make it. … It just shows me that I’m not far. I need to keep believ[ing] in myself, keep believ[ing] that I can do better.”

There was so much at stake for Monfils, after all -- at the very least a chance to give his reputation as an entertainer first another vigorous shake. It won’t slip off completely. Now that Monfils has suffered the first defeat that will never leave him, that threatens to haunt him for the rest of his career, that he’ll have no choice but to avenge, we have a whole new reason to watch him do his thing.

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