Monfils' miracle on Chatrier

Frenchman rallies back 0-4 down in decider to triumph in first-round thriller

Gael Monfils, Roland-Garros 2023, first round© Philippe Montigny/FFT
 - Nick McCarvel

Thirty-six years old, ranked world No.394 and without a completed match win in nearly a year, Gael Monfils has pulled off one of the most improbable comebacks in Grand Slam tennis history. 

And that’s no hyperbole. 

The fantastical Frenchman trailed world No.42 Sebastian Baez by 0-4 and two breaks in the fifth and deciding set before spinning Court Philippe-Chatrier on its side, the tennis venue morphing into a French World Cup football stadium, breaking into the national anthem, La Marseillaise, at one point.

Baez, who held a two-sets-to-love-lead against Alexander Zverev and a match point in the fifth just a year ago, failed to serve out the match at 5-4, with Monfils breaking, holding and then breaking again for his 11th career fifth-set win in Paris.

LaMonf completed a great, Monfilsian escape on a searing backhand passing shot up the line, sealing a 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 7-5 victory, his first at a major since the Australian Open in January of 2022. 

The three-hour, 47-minute affair is perhaps the most memorable of evening sessions in their young history at this event, with Monfils sending shockwaves through the French capital as only he can.

Monfils, a semi-finalist here in 2008, won his 38th career match here in 16 appearances. His reward is a clash on Thursday against No.6 Holger Rune, though the veteran will need a full physical recovery to face down the 20-year-old Dane, a semi-finalist here last year.

Monfils, now 38-15 at RG, avoided being dumped out in the first round for just a third time in his career, having lost at this stage in 2005 and 2020, as well.

Monfils signed the camera on his way off the court with a simple message: “Skaï” it read, an ode to his baby daughter born in October of last year with partner Elina Svitolina, the WTA star.

His win was one for the generations, surely.


Story of the match

Baez started better, and after a trio of breaks midway through the first set, he didn’t blink: The Argentine served the first out in 36 minutes, sealed by a Monfils error.

The second and third sets, however, belonged to the home hope, who missed six months into this March after suffering a plantar fascia rupture in his right foot last August in Montreal.

It was flashes of the ghosts of Gael: He stepped deeper behind the baseline to return serve, then put his patented loop on his groundstrokes, which had more bite on them as he broke for a 5-3 lead and then served out the second with more aggressive play.

The veteran looked to run away with things as he broke to open the third and then had chances to go up a double break. But a 4-2 lead evaporated in the eighth game when he was broken at love, and then Monfils fell down love-40 at 4-5 serving, facing a trio of set points mere minutes after it felt like he was in clear control.

Gael Monfils, Roland-Garros 2023, first round© Philippe Montigny/FFT

Yet he roared to life with his back to the wall: Monfils saved those set points and broke Baez with a backhand winner down the line to the delight of the Court Philippe-Chatrier crowd, which included a trio of blaring horns.

Monfils won set three in a marathon 12th game, sealed with a backhand miss on a return from the Argentine. Monfils encouraged the crowd’s growing roars.

Baez skipped to a 3-0 lead in the fourth in minutes, though, Monfils doubling over at the side of the court in exhaustion. As Baez closed in on a 6-1 fourth, an out-of-gas Monfils appeared to be readying himself for a fifth-set charge.

But it looked as though it wouldn’t come: Baez again broke from go, then broke a second time for a 4-0 lead. It was then that Monfils really came alive, however, breaking once to uplift the Chatrier crowd and then breaking again as it roared to a fever-pitch at 4-all.

He made what could have been a critical error in the ninth game, broken again, only to see Baez unable to reach match point as he served for it at 5-4, Monfils painting the lines to stay alive.

Monfils would break back, hold, and then, in a 10-point 12th game – with both players cramping – break.

Monfils’ final backhand pass, a 41st of the night, splashed a delighted smile across his face as the crowd leapt to its feet. He held a finger into the air and patted his chest with his hand: A win of pure heart.

Key stats

The most key of stats were the intangibles: First, Monfils’ empty tank in set four and the beginning of set five, but then Monfils’ refuse-to-lose attitude and a thunderous French crowd that willed him across the finish line.

Monfils kept his service numbers in the 60-per cent range for the night, but the fifth set was telling for Baez: He won just 43 per cent of first serve points in the fifth and committed 13 unforced errors while Monfils clocked 13 winners in the ultimate set himself.

Monfils out-hit Baez on the night, 41 winners to 35, and while the Frenchman had 71 unforced errors – as well as winning fewer points overall (157 to 149) – it didn’t matter: He stayed in it until victory was done.

What the winner said

A breathless, emotional and yet exuberant Monfils spoke with Marion Bartoli on court at the triumph: “I said to myself I haven’t won a match since I became a dad, my daughter [Skaï] is in Paris, so I said to myself, ‘I’m going to win one,’” he explained. “I started to take a step back, believe in the energy of the crowd. We did it together.”