WHAT HAPPENED: Prior to the coin toss, while waiting for Richard Gasquet to come on court, Gael Monfils bobbed and weaved at the net, to the sounds of “Express Yourself” on the PA system.
The DJ could hardly have selected a more appropriate tune to open this matchup of exciting French shotmakers, longtime friends who’ve played one another since junior days. But on this humid, oppressive night, after rain and electrical storms pushed their day match back to 8:25 p.m., Monfils expressed himself by being all business.
A focused, committed and aggressive Monfils advanced to the round of 16 – on the eve of his 28th birthday – by thoroughly dismantling his French teammate, the 12th seed and a semifinalist here last year, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.
Monfils came out with purpose, smacking a forehand winner to break Gasquet’s serve at love in the opening game. And he was constant throughout, playing an extremely clean match. Monfils committed just 20 unforced errors, and he converted six of nine break-point opportunities.
Monfils closed out the match with a service winner, his 49th of the match.
“I’ve been very solid. I was hitting very hard from the baseline,” said Monfils, who has yet to drop a set in the tournament.
While he doesn’t always show off his tremendous firepower, preferring sometimes to extend points and depend on his athletic defensive skills – which can deteriorate into passive play – on Sunday night in Louis Armstrong Stadium Monfils hugged the baseline and repeatedly blistered heavy shots past Gasquet.
Monfils’ only distraction came in the first set, when a small handful of rain drops fell. Yet Monfils insisted that play be stopped. The vocal Armstrong crowd got on the popular Frenchman, which seemed to motivate him to play a brand of serious, attacking tennis.
It was the kind of high-quality, distraction-free tennis many observers have longed to see from Monfils. Perhaps in a sign that Monfils is very comfortable in this matchup with his friend Gasquet, the 20th seed let his spectacular shotmaking and speed around the court do the entertaining.
WHAT IT MEANS: Monfils increased his lead over his countryman to 7-4, and he has won four of their last five encounters. Monfils’s best result at the US Open was the quarterfinal in 2010, and he has also twice reached that round at Roland Garros, his home Slam, including earlier this year.
Monfils now advances to play either a Bulgarian or a Belgian: either No. 7 Grigor Dimitrov or unseeded David Goffin. If victorious, Monfils could potentially meet second seed Roger Federer in the quarterfinals.
THE QUESTION: There is little question that Monfils has the raw ability to beat anyone and contend for a major. In the past, he hasn’t been up to the task. Could this be the year Monfils lives up to his potential?