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Monfils Beats Pouille as French Advance at U.S. Open

NEW YORK CITY — Bryan & Bryan faced a rain delay midway through the tight third set of a tight quarterfinal match against Lopez & Lopez. Fan bias at Louis Armstrong Stadium tilted heavily toward Mike and Bob Bryan, the most successful men’s doubles team in history. Except for mixed-doubles star Rajeev Ram, they were the last U.S. men sill in the tournament.

Tennis audiences tend toward good manners and fair-play, and you won’t find much jingoism at Flushing Meadows. The Bryans, who are twins, last won here in 2014 against a team that included Marc Lopez; Felipe, of a different Lopez family, is a highly respected singles player.

The tension rises, of course, in the second week. The quarters started at Ashe Stadium with a contest between two Frenchmen; another Frenchman is also in the quarters. There have not been three Frenchmen in the quarters since the days of Bill Tilden – in fact since the days when the Four Musketeers of French tennis legend dethroned the big American who had reigned over the sport through most of the 1920s.

Naturally the tennis press picked up on this, with some help from the USTA communications staff, but they missed the fact that, as it happens, the musketeer theme was revived about ten years ago when Gael Monfils and several others were dubbed the nouveaux mousquetaires by an enthusiastic French sports press.

They fell short, cut down in tournament after tournament by Spaniards and Swiss and Serbs. The Spaniards in particular seemed to grate on French nerves, and there were cruel rumors of illicit stimulants, never proven. In fact, Rafa Nadal finally got fed up with these. French Davis Cup captain Yannick Noah’s insinuations were bad enough, but coming from a high government official, the sports minister, without any evidence, was the casus belli and Nadal sued. The suit is pending, and meanwhile various French officials are under for minor peccadilloes such as tournament ticket scalping.

None of this mattered, compared to the fact that the aging new musketeers were joined by a newer one, which is the exact story line in Alexandre Dumas’s epic masterpiece of swashbuckling and fighting for Queen and Country. Lucas Pouille, who is 22, defeated Nadal in a five set epic on Sunday night, trading blow for blow with the 2010 and 2013 champion.

It was the match of the tournament, but it took a lot out of young Pouille, who already had been through two five-setters. Against Monfils, he put up some respectable resistance but never threatened.

On every level, serves, returns, and, especially, winners, Monfils was easily ahead. Pouille went bravely to the net and repeatedly tried to drop-shot his opponent. But Monfils does not run like anyone else, and he usually catches even the most delicately placed “soft-hand” shot near the net. Moreover, the shot making precision that Pouille deployed against Nadal in a three and a half hour five setter crumbled early and evaporated in the two hours and three sets it took Monfils to finish his fine run.

Can Monfils sustain his fantastic athleticism against either Novak Djokovic or his old friend Jo-Wilfred Tsonga? Monfils plays with an intensity that makes him run down, and usually get, every single ball. Indeed, Pouille tried to wear him down with shots many others would let go. Monfils never looks at a shot, he goes after it, even if it means racing across the full width of the court to scoop it up on his outstretched arm with a sliced forehand or a seemingly impossible backhand that likely as not is actually behind him by the time when he reaches it.

The French charge gives the quarters and the semis an excitement that briefly dimmed when the last Americans, who were having one of their better years in recent memory, fell out of the draw. They all did well, and Jack Sock, in particular, showed how much his game has improved. At 23 Pouille’s near contemporary, there is perhaps the beginning of a trans-Atlantic competition hark back to Tilden-Lacoste.

The rain turned to drizzle and the umps let play resume outside.Mike Bryan was broken, and Marc Lopez held. Which leave Rajeev Ram, headed for the mixed doubles semis with the ball of fire that is Coco Vandeweghe. It’s New York and the Mets play across the street.

Gotta believe.

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