NEW YORK – If a wild-looking carefree guy swinging a tennis racket leaps your fence and dives into the backyard, don’t be alarmed. It’s probably the cool Frenchman from the Caribbean isle of Guadeloupe displaying his do-or-die brand of big league tennis.
Gael Monfils won’t give up on any ball within the ballpark, and some that have bounced beyond. These tactics put him on the floor more often than a punch-drunk pugilist. You hold your breath and wonder if the scrawny Monfils will get up. Usually he does, but…
At 6-4 and 177 pounds Gael thinks he can fly, and his success is obvious. Ranking No. 7 on the planet, and a strong cog on an outstanding French Davis Cup team, Monfils was in town yesterday as one of the favorites for the US Open crown.
It didn’t work that way, however, because the guy on the other side of the net, a Spaniard named Juan Carlos Ferrero, was having a career evening, stretching over nearly five hours (4hours 48 minutes). It turned into a screamer with higher and higher decibels heating the overflow gathering of 10,200 at Louis Armstrong Stadium. If a former neighbor, Satchmo Louis, were still with us, he would have blown a few dynamite choruses of “Saints Go Marching In.”
It was that good, a rip-roaring angled ground strokes duel that was suspenseful to the last swing, and went to Ferrero, 7-6 (7-5), 5-7, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-4 – the match of the tournament thus far. Numerous injuries have cut down Ferraro, 31, since his grabbing the French Open in 2003, he was elated to have done so well from a No. 105 ranking.
He said it was a very complicated match with Mofils due to his incredible movement. Ferrero had already played a five set match in the first round. He is not totally healed from his hip problems saying “it was better when I was running than when I was walking. It was such a physical match.”
Nevertheless, the crowd, as everywhere he goes, was with Monfils, celebrating his 25th birthday, though the loser. As Ferrero prepared to serve for the match, the patrons, on their feet, saluted both players with a long siege of clapping. This wasn’t Paris, but Monfils was grinning. “The crowd was very good to me. It was like a great feeling.”
Ferrero was impressed and touched by the sportsmanship of Monfils. At the handshake he threw his racquet to his chair and clapped for Ferrero.
“This is a good day for me. My birthday, my Mom was here. She say, you win, you lose, you give your best. I think today I sort of smile at my mom even though I lost, so I was quite happy.”
His was a “green” theme: an olive shirt with golden lightning bolts, and matching shoes topped by a billowing coiffure. Often it hits the dirt when he dives in search of one more stroke,
He excites viewers, “acting like a swimmer,” says one, “plunging into the asphalt. Great for spectators, but how tough is it for you.”
Gael answers, “It’s really tough because all the people think I’m like elastic. You know, diving. If I stay a little bit longer on the floor, they’re like, ’he’s acting.’ I’m not like X Man, you know. For 30 seconds I hurt. But maybe something is missing upstairs.”
“I think I’m kind of blessed because I never really hurt myself. So I think I’m gifted on that. I think some things just switch off in my mind. I just see the ball and I’m, like, well you have to do it – then I dive. Then, you know, I forget it’s a hard court, Not clay or grass. I do the move and see what happens.”
“Do I say, Oh no’ when I take off in a dive. Too late. I know the dive is good for two seconds. Then you’re like, ‘Oh shit, it’s too hard.
“Sometimes in the shower you dive and crash. The shower is tough – but happens. I think,” Gael smiles, “I can give diving lessons.”