Editor’s Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September.
In 2006, Gael Monfils became the sixth man in the Open Era to win three consecutive five-setters at Roland Garros. Entering that tournament, a 19-year-old Monfils had not won one five-setter. It wasn’t just that he accomplished the feat, it was how he did it.
The former junior World No. 1 arrived in Paris with plenty of confidence, fresh off making his first ATP Masters 1000 semi-final at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. The 25th seed faced a roadblock in the first round against Andy Murray, who had beaten him in straight sets two weeks earlier. But inspired by his home crowd, he rallied from two sets to one down to defeat the eventual World No. 1 6-4, 6-7(2), 1-6, 6-2, 6-1 in three hours and 42 minutes. The Frenchman then battled back from the same deficit against Belgian Dick Norman, advancing to the third round with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-0, 7-5 victory.
The teen’s biggest test was still to come in eighth-seeded James Blake, a powerful right-hander with plenty of punch in his game and a set of wheels as quick as anyone’s on the ATP Tour.
“I remember the crowd understandably being extremely pro-Gael. To be honest, if I wasn’t playing him, I’d be a huge fan of his as well,” Blake told ATPTour.com. “He is such an entertainer and just fun to watch, especially at that young age when people hadn’t seen that kind of athleticism before.
“I thought it was my best chance to do really well at Roland Garros. That was my best year on Tour and I felt like I was playing well, even on clay. Gael was so talented and had power and speed that was shocking.”
Play began after 7 p.m. on Court 1, otherwise known as the Bullring, with both men seeking a berth in the fourth round at Roland Garros for the first time. It was Monfils’ second appearance at the event, but it didn’t take him long to get the fans on his side.
Monfils served with a 6-2, 5-4 lead, and was two points from taking a massive advantage after saving back-to-back break points at 15/40. Blake had only converted one of 11 chances up to that point, but he crushed a forehand winner and then forced an error on the next two points to get back on serve, later evening the match at one set apiece. Play was then suspended due to darkness.
After splitting the next two sets, it looked like the higher seed might find a way through when he earned two break points at 2-1 in the fifth set. But Blake hit a backhand into the net and Monfils cracked a booming serve to save those opportunities. The Frenchman then made his move at 4-4.
Facing break point, Blake ripped two massive forehands that would have been winners against virtually anyone in the field, but Monfils clawed them back. The American came in for a Pete Sampras-like leaping overhead, but Monfils was there to get the ball back, and Blake missed a forehand volley into the net. That was the only advantage the teen needed, serving out his 6-2, 6-7(2), 7-6(1), 5-7, 6-4 victory in the next game after three hours and 21 minutes.
“It was a good satisfaction for me because it was the first time I made the second week [in a] Grand Slam,” Monfils said later that year. “[I did] this in France in front of my family and my friends, so for me that was amazing.”
Blake didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. Monfils, inspired by the French, was simply too good for the former Top 10 star.
“I just couldn’t hold him off in the fifth set when he put so much pressure on me to hold serve. His serve was so powerful, that I was struggling to make any progress on his service games,” Blake said. “He made such unbelievable gets on my service games that it was difficult to have any easy holds or quick points. That was the difference, that he got that one elusive break in the fifth set.”
In a fourth-round battle of teens, Monfils lost to unseeded Novak Djokovic. The Serbian won the first two sets in a tie-break before pulling away. Even though Monfils couldn’t rally for a fourth consecutive five-set win, he certainly left an impression on Paris and the tennis world.
“I still think Gael is the fastest player to ever play on Tour. His ability to retrieve balls that I thought were easy winners was shocking,” Blake said. “I really couldn’t believe that his top speed was so fast. It seemed like it didn’t matter how far out of position he was on the court, he could recover for the next ball.”
Did You Know?
Monfils’ best result at Roland Garros came in 2008, when he made the semi-finals. The Frenchman has made three additional quarter-finals in Paris.