Monfils handling pressure of first major semifinal well

Updated: June 5, 2008

Out of this world

PARIS -- Striking photos of two tall, expressive men of color stared out from newspapers -- from sporting to ultraserious -- on the racks of newsstands all over this city on Thursday. A couple of years ago, who would have predicted that Barack Obama would be the Democratic presidential candidate, or that Gael Monfils would be the toast of Roland Garros?

Accompanying Obama's full-front-page photo in the French tabloid newspaper Liberation was the headline Il peut gagner -- "He can win." It might be difficult to make that bold a statement about the 21-year-old Monfils as he enters his match with world No. 1 Roger Federer, given that Federer is Federer and also has beaten Monfils the three times they've played, twice this year.

Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

Gael Monfils has unexpectedly muscled his way into the French Open semifinals.

"I've told him it's a match like any other," said Monfils' father Rufin, lanky and animated as his son. "He's playing an extraterrestrial -- the man from Mars -- but he has to treat it the same way."

And what planet is his son on at the moment?

"The Earth," Rufin Monfils said. "He's très cool. He's always been like this."

Gael Monfils indeed appears to be firmly grounded despite the scope of his accomplishment here. He played a round of golf Thursday morning to relax and looked cheery as he wandered into the players lounge before practice, trailed by an entourage that includes pal Mehdi Darlis, who plays tennis for Southeastern Louisiana University.

Darlis, who like Monfils' father is from Guadeloupe, said he isn't surprised that his friend seems to be handling things so well. "It's in his nature," he said. "He's generous, he loves giving to people."

Monfils is giving a lot of pleasure to his fellow citizens right now. Unseeded and ranked 59th going into the French Open, he's the first Frenchman to advance to the final four since Sebastien Grosjean in 2001, and his success here is all the more impressive because his season didn't begin to pick up steam until very recently.

Hampered by a knee injury -- the latest in a series of aches and pains that knocked him out of the Top 50 after a career high of No. 23 two years ago -- Monfils began his 2008 campaign in March and had discouraging results until he managed to win a Challenger tournament in Marrakesh, Morocco, in mid-May. But the following week at a tournament in Casablanca, Monfils felt pain in one thigh and was diagnosed with a micro-tear in his adductor muscle.

Concerned about the setback on the eve of Roland Garros, Monfils' father called in physiotherapist Philippe Manicom, a Guadeloupe-born Miami resident who specializes in Oriental medicine. Manicom said Monfils underwent treatment two or three times daily for five days before the tournament but still was not 100 percent when the French Open started.

"He's gotten stronger as he's gone along," Manicom said. Manicom also said he put Monfils on different stretching and breathing routines. "He's naturally flexible, but you can always gain," he said.

Monfils has gotten some attention here for wearing American college football jerseys to his past two postmatch press conferences (University of Miami, followed by the University of Michigan). He's an unabashed fan of U.S. team sports of all kinds except baseball, which doesn't interest him. But his coach, Thierry Champion, said there's something more than skin-deep about his American-sports affinity.

"When you're French, sometimes -- how would I say it? -- you're not optimistic," the suddenly in-demand Champion said in one of the many impromptu interviews he graciously conducted in the players lounge. "But he's soaked up the attitude he's seen in American sports, and I'm not afraid to tell him, 'Play this tournament to win' instead of 'It's great if you get through a couple rounds.'

"He's ready for this. He's hungry."

Semifinal predictions

Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic
Quite simply, Nadal has looked invincible the past 10 days. His past two opponents, Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro, appeared to be psyched out before their matches even started, perhaps because of the fraternal pecking order in Spanish tennis. Djokovic won't bring that disadvantage into the match, and he gave Nadal a real tussle in Hamburg, but the softer surface there (and the fact that they played under cover on a wet day) may have acted as a leveler. The only possible downside for Nadal is that he hasn't been pushed yet, an oddity in a Slam.

Nadal in four.

Roger Federer vs. Gael Monfils
Federer said the other day that he enjoys playing top players in their backyard. Had he been asked which Frenchman he'd most likely face in a semifinal, chances are Monfils would have been way down on the list. On paper, the world No. 1 should handle Monfils with relative ease, but he has much more to lose in this match. Monfils can play with abandon and the assurance that he'll emerge as an overachieving hero either way. Could the crowd -- or Monfils' demonstrativeness -- get under Federer's skin? Possibly, but he'll soldier through it.

Federer in four.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.


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Ready to return

Tsonga

Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who pulled out of the French Open at the last minute because of a torn right meniscus, was seen walking steadily and without pain in the players lounge on Thursday afternoon.

Clad in jeans and smiling, Tsonga, 23, offered an update on his health predicament.

"I had the surgery done for my meniscus last week," said Tsonga, who underwent the procedure 10 days before on the first Tuesday of the tournament.

The 11th-ranked Tsonga, who made international headlines in January as a surprise Australian Open finalist, pulled out of the Davis Cup quarterfinal against the United States in early April. He had traveled to Winston-Salem, N.C., for the quarterfinal but went home before the tie began because of the injury.

Just before the French Open, Tsonga, who had the knee drained in hopes he would be able to continue playing despite the injury, was competing at the Casablanca tournament but withdrew from his semifinal match because of pain.

Acknowledging that the surgery seems to have had the desired outcome, Tsonga revealed to ESPN.com that doctors couldn't give him an exact date as to when he could return to the tour.

But Tsonga hopes that playing the U.S. Open is a realistic possibility.

"I will take my time and see when I come back," Tsonga said. "They didn't tell me how long it will take, but they think around two months."

-- Sandra Harwitt

Pleasant surprise

Dellacqua

"If you'd told me before this tournament that I'd be playing in a French Open final, then I'd probably have had a bit of a giggle." That's what ebullient Aussie Casey Dellacqua told fans on her blog for Tennis Australia (that country's federation) as she prepared for Friday's women's doubles championship match.

Dellacqua and her partner, Italy's Francesca Schiavone, made easy 6-2, 6-1 work of the seventh-seeded Bondarenko sisters -- Aussie Open titlists, by the way -- to advance to the final against Spain's 10th-seeded Virginia Ruano Pascual and Anabel Medina Garrigues.

Dellacqua wasn't the only one caught off guard by her own success. Her mother and "Nan" -- aka Bev Kirwan-Ward, her flame-haired grandma whose expressive faces in the stands endeared her to television audiences during Dellacqua's run to the Australian Open round of 16 -- have had to change their flights four times to continue following her.

"This whole experience has shown me there's no reason Australians can't do well on clay," Dellacqua wrote in her blog. Got to love that attitude.

-- Bonnie D. Ford