Notebook: Monfils stuns Berdych

PARIS -- Nine years ago, Gael Monfils was the Next Big Thing in men's tennis.

The Gumby-like Frenchman won three of four major junior titles at the age of 17 -- including here at Roland Garros -- and finished as the No. 1-ranked junior. He lost only two sets in those three championship runs. And then?

Well, safe to say, the irrepressible Monfils (or all of France itself) didn't see himself going 0-for-the-Grand Slams as a professional. In fact, despite his sometimes astonishing speed and athleticism, he has won only four career titles -- in out-of-the-way places like Stockholm, Montpellier, Metz and Sopot.

Still, he was a top-16 player for four consecutive years, from 2008 to '11, before a right knee injury knocked him all the way down to No. 78. He was somewhere north of No. 100 when things suddenly came together for him just two weeks ago.

Monfils won the Challenger in Bordeaux, beating three better-ranked players, then made the final at Nice last week, taking out four players ranked between No. 29 (Fabio Fognini) and No. 78 (Santiago Giraldo). This was all lovely, but the one tournament LeMonf wants more than any other … is right here in Paris.

"Ah, Paris … this is the tournament I always dreamed of winning, the one I always played to win," he recently told ESPN.com in an interview for Second Servings. "It's home and my friends and family are all there for me."

The first-round draw -- No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych -- was not ideal, for the Frenchmen had lost six of seven previous sets to Berdych, and all three of their matches.

Then how on earth did Monfils stun the No. 6-ranked Berdych on Monday in the first round of this French Open, 7-6 (8), 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-7 (4), 7-5?

Uh, let us get back to you on that one. The match went 4 hours, 3 minutes and totally delighted the 10,000-or-so fans who stuck around past 8:30 p.m. to watch.

The bottom line? Monfils was grittier in the big points, especially when he broke Berdych in the 11th game of the final set.

Monfils has a history of creating moments on this court. In a 2011 run to the quarterfinals, he took down No. 7 seed David Ferrer in the fourth round.

After the final Berdych shot soared long, Monfils looked dead serious, facing his box and placing his hand on his heart. After slapping Berdych's hand at net, he exploded in glee -- the Monfils we are accustomed to seeing.

The way the draw is shaping up -- his next opponent is Ernests Gulbis -- Monfils, who has gone to two quarterfinals here, and a semifinal in 2008, might go deep again. Just don't dare to hope for another French men's champion exactly 30 years after Yannick Noah's greatest triumph.

John Isner has developed a reputation for playing matches as long as, well, as long as he is. Considering Isner is 6-foot-9, that's saying something.

There was, of course, the three-day marathon three years ago at Wimbledon that ended 11 hours and five minutes after it began, with Isner beating Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set. But there is also the little-known five-setter here a year ago when Isner fell to Paul-Henri Mathieu in the second round. The match, which ended at 18-16 in the fifth, was the longest in tournament history (for games) and the second-longest in duration, clocking in at five hours, 41 minutes.

So, let's give the big fella some credit after his straight-sets first-round victory over Carlos Berlocq. The score was, improbably, 6-3, 6-4, 6-5, and it was over in 1:56. Where's the drama in that?

The No. 19-seeded Isner, for his part, was fired up by his relatively swift effort, throwing more than a dozen fist-pumps after Berlocq's low backhand sailed long.

"Aggressive -- that's the way I've got to play," Isner said afterward.

Isner trailed 0-3 and 1-4 in the third set and sounded proud that he found a way to break back and close out Berlocq in three.

"I feel like I've been hitting the ball well since I've been here in Europe," Isner said, "I just haven't had the results to show for it."

Indeed, Isner actually won the clay tournament in Houston before traveling across the Atlantic. Before Monday, he lost his first match in three of four events -- and the second in the other.

The good news? For all the haranguing about Americans' inability to win on clay, there will be a man in the third round here. That's because Isner's next opponent will be Ryan Harrison, who beat Andrey Kuznetsov in straight sets. Isner beat Harrison in Houston, but doesn't take too much from that.

"Going into that match, neither of us was playing well," said Isner, who added that he couldn't remember playing a fellow American in a European match. "It'll be a good match. I'll have to play well."

Steve Johnson took Nice champion Albert Montanes to five sets, but fell in the final frame, 6-1.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands' first day at this year's French Open went better than her last day in 2012. She walked off the court an easy 6-4, 6-1 winner over Lourdes Dominguez Lino on Monday rather than limping off with a loss and a broken foot last year.

That broken foot was just another injury in what has been a long and frustrating string of issues for Mattek-Sands in recent years when she fell from 55th in 2011 to 173rd last year.

"It's just been one thing after another,'' she said. "A broken foot. A torn shoulder. Hip surgery. It was tough to build a rhythm. It wasn't that I was playing bad, but I just could never capitalize when I was feeling great.

"And that's what I've been able to do this year. I've played more tournaments already this year than all last year. And the year before that. It's probably the most I've played in the last four years. I'm really happy that I'm able to recover and play week in and week out.''

Back up to 67, Mattek-Sands attributes her current stretch of good health (and resulting improved performance) to a new diet after learning last November that she was allergic to 26 types of food. Yes, 26.

"The big things are gluten, dairy and cheese but also tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, vanilla,'' she said. "Italian food is tough. It's tough here, actually. They serve French fries with everything and I'm allergic to white potatoes, too. So it's pretty much rice and meat that I've been eating.''

The food allergies didn't cause Mattek-Sands to break out in hives or anything, but she said they led to inflammation which slowed her recovery from injury. That has changed significantly with the new diet. "I lost body fat, I have more energy,'' she said. "It was a huge difference.''

Mattek-Sands put out a positive spin Monday on the health issues that have frustrated a pro career that began in 1999 at age 14.

"I've learned a lot. I fought through a lot. I can walk on the court and really know I can get through anything. It doesn't matter what the score is, it doesn't matter how I feel. It doesn't matter what the elements are. I can get through anything. That's what I'll take home rather than 'Oh, I lost years of playing.'"

Next up for Mattek-Sands is China's Li Na, the 2011 champ at Roland Garros. She said she gets along well with Li and looks forward to their match.

"I like playing top players because it's a good way to test where I'm at with my game,'' she said. "You want to play in big stadiums against the best players. I feel like I'm playing well right now, moving well, and playing the best I ever have. Now more than ever is my chance to do well against top players.''

-- Jim Caple

The summit of tennis is a tenuous thing. Since the start of 2012 alone, the No. 1 ranking on the WTA Tour has changed hands four times.

But before the rankings fearlessly began swapping hands, there actually was a semblance of stability, thanks to Caroline Wozniacki, whose counterpunching consistency led her atop the field for 49 straight weeks. As unspectacular as her Grand Slam résumé is (she reached only one final in 25 appearances), only three players in the past 13 years strung together longer runs at No. 1.

But that was then. Maria Sharapova healed, Victoria Azarenka exceeded her expectations and Serena Williams reinvented herself. That wasn't encouraging news for Wozniacki, who could only watch as her ranking plummeted outside the top 10 to No. 11.

She entered the French Open with an embarrassing two-month drought. Wozniacki, who was riding a five-match losing streak entering Roland Garros, was a disappointing 16-13 on the year and perilously close to dropping below the .500 mark for the season. But the good news for Wozniacki is the more her game was deteriorating, the fewer the expectations she had. Thus, the Dane promptly came out Monday and drilled Laura Robson 6-3, 6-2 in the opening round.

"To be honest, no, my confidence has always been good," Wozniacki said. "You know, I went into the match believing in myself and believing that I was going out there to win, of course."

For her part, Wozniacki advanced to the second round of a Grand Slam for only the second time in her past four majors and, amazingly, won her first significant clay-court match of the entire season.

All this amid all the viral video of her father, Piotr, who suggested to Danish TV that her romance with Rory McIlroy might have something to do with her slump.

"She has her boyfriend, she has her name, and she knows well if she is satisfied or not," Piotr said in that interview. "When you are young, you stick with your parents, who do not criticize you so much. Today is Caroline's own."

Wozniacki didn't have much to say in response during her postmatch news conference, only quipping that she made the "biggest divot on the grass" of the Masters Par 3 contest when she caddied for McIlroy earlier this year.

Considering the way Wozniacki's tennis career has fallen, better she leave any more shortcomings to the golf course.

--Matt Wilansky