Gael Monfils had a new face on when he walked into the boiling Paris cauldron of the last Masters showdown of the ATP year.
His long angular features were deeply carved by an intense circle of light, and the look spoke volumes. This was a man determined not to walk away, for a second consecutive year, holding the runner-up trophy.
Behind him came the piercing Scandinavian eyes of a man completely centred on the moment: it was the first time Robin Soderling had ever walked into a Masters final.
If they were track and field athletes, Monfils would be pacing the start line for the 200m or rocking on the take-off for the long jump, while Soderling would be striding around the outfield with a javelin in his fist, reciting the sequence of movements needed to find the perfect flight.
Differences aside, though, they have much in common—same height, both right-handed, both growing into their best tennis in their mid-20s, both with one title in 2010. They have breathed the rarefied air of top-10 status, yet neither has won a Masters title. And they both won their chances to do so by winning two long and dramatic semi-final matches in which they faced match points and survived.
So much was expected.
And with the first point, it seemed as though Monfils would start the way he had against Federer. On the Soderling serve, he chased the shortest of drop shots and nicked away a winner.
But the Swede had the look of a man with not a doubt in his head. Where he had been thrown out of his comfort zone by Michael Llodra’s serve-and-volley attack, the time and height on the ball that Monfils offered him was like milk and honey, and the big hitting kicked in. First game won.
Not only did Soderling take control on his own serve but he also quickly attacked Monfils’ and went a break up.
He appeared, even at this early stage, to be putting into practice some new tricks he had picked up from Llodra, the opponent he praised at such length the day before. He threw in some wide, kicking serves, attacked the net and hit his backhand wide. Even more impressive, he chased down the Monfils drop shots with surprising speed.
Soderling was seeing the ball like a football and hitting it like a missile. He used power and pace, but also angle and control. This increasingly trim and quick Swede was calm, confident and controlled. He was also 5-1 up.
Serving for the first set, he lost the first two points. Would the Frenchman go on the offensive, as he had done with such success against Roger Federer the day before? Could he step into the Soderling serve and force the error? The answer—for this first set at least—was no.
Monfils looked a step slower, almost bemused at the wide and accurate serves and ground strokes coming from his opponent. He could not even out-run Soderling on the drop shots. The Swede sprinted to them all and finished off the set with a characteristic great sweep of the arm. It took just 26 minutes.
The Frenchman needed to lift his game, and the crowd needed to lift its volume. Monfils managed his side of the bargain, just, in holding his opening service game. In pushing Soderling to deuce, the crowd did theirs. There were signs that Monfils’ weary body and mind were starting to wake up, starting to remember what they had done yesterday and what he had to do today.
But he continued to struggle to return the Swede’s serve, and when he faced a second serve, failed to attack it with the same belief he had shown against Federer. Nor, on his own first serve, could he find any real penetration.
He came under pressure again when serving at 3-3 but held on.
At 4-4, Soderling took off to the net like a steeplechaser to retrieve a drop shot and thread a winner down the line. He did it again at 15-15. The Swede’s ice-blue eyes was constantly alert, the ever-present dimples cut deep grooves in the mask-like concentration of his face.
Once more, Monfils held him off, and with the second set beckoning at 6-5, the crowd lifted themselves in support of their man. The French are not great respecters of the niceties of watching tennis when there is one of their own in action, and Soderling had a choice—wait for a hush that would never come or serve through the noise. His composure was enviable, and his tennis did the talking.
Monfils had the crowd on their feet again as he sealed the 11th game with a pick-up back-hand volley worthy of Llodra. Once again, Soderling was forced to serve through the raucous distraction, and he did.
Finally, there was tension to equal the two semifinals: the two men faced a tie-break. It was Monfils’ seventh of the tournament but only Soderling’s third. It was Monfils’s 13th set of the tournament and only Soderling’s 11th. And the difference in court time showed.
Soderling played the tie-breaker just as he had played the match, with smart and simple tactics. His big serve opened up the classic one-two play—a repeated winner—and his flat hitting kept the ball low over the net—he averaged a 46cm clearance compared with Monfils’ 74cm. Soderling got off to a flyer, and Monfils never looked like pulling back the deficit.
The Swede took the second set, seven points to one, and the title in less than half the time it took to overcome Llodra—just 77 minutes.
It’s hard to believe that the 26-year-old Soderling, now with six titles from 11 finals, had never played a Masters final before. But here is a man growing in physical dexterity, mental concentration and fitness with every year.
His direction in the rankings has only been upwards, his achievements constantly improving. He reached his first Masters semifinals earlier this year in Indian Well and Miami and was a finalist for the second time at a Grand Slam.
With the Paris title, he has moved up one spot to a new high of No. 4. It’s convenient timing, too, just ahead of the World Tour Finals, as it guarantees he will not have two of the top three in his pool. If Murray, at No. 5, is not in his pool either, Soderling could have a very straightforward run in indeed.
Soderling’s first win of the year came on the indoor hard courts of Rotterdam. His latest title has also come indoors. Perhaps his third is just round the corner in London’s similar indoor arena.