Gael Monfils was in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in 10 appearances in Indian Wells, the wildly athletic Frenchman was unseeded, thrown into a quarter of the draw teaming with threats (think: Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic, etc.). For the first time in a decade, there would be no opening-round bye. If Monfils were to win the BNP Paribas Open in 2018, he would have to win seven matches.
Having accepted his fate, Monfils, a former world No. 6 who’s dropped to No. 42 in part due to injury woes, began his quest in earnest on Friday in Stadium 1, dispatching No. 78 Matthew Ebden 6-3, 6-3.
A quarterfinalist here in 2016, Monfils, 31, arrived in the desert in good form. He’d opened the season by capturing his seventh career ATP World Tour title in Doha. In his first tournament on hard courts since the Australian Open, he simply outplayed his journeyman opponent, a South African-born Aussie who at 30 is still seeking his first career title. Monfils advances to face American John Isner, against whom he holds a 5-4 edge in FedEx ATP Head2Heads.
Five of the first six games went to deuce, as both players labored to hold serve. Ebden — playing in the Indian Wells main draw for the first time since 2014 — would surrender a break in the eighth game, and Monfils subsequently stepped up to serve out the 38-minute opening set.
As broadcaster Brett Haber said of Monfils, “He can make the ill-advised look wise.” Some of those risk/reward, low-percentage shots were on display on Friday afternoon, but for the most part Monfils played prudent tennis. A break at love would give Ebden an early 2-0 lead in the second set, but he soon surrendered the advantage with an ill-timed double fault (he would finish with four). A break for Monfils at 2-all — his fourth of five on the afternoon — put the Frenchman in front for good. Serving to stay in the match at 3-5, Ebden double faulted the match away in one hour, eleven minutes.
“It’s not a comfortable place,” said Monfils of his unseeded status. “But that’s why I’m playing as much as I can, to get back to a better ranking, to have better draws. It’s not a scary place for me. I know that I need to work. I’m not resigned to fate, it’s just a fact. You can’t change that. I’ve been hurt and dropped a lot in the rankings. That’s the way it is. Life sometimes is good, sometimes it’s a little bit unfair.”
Joining Monfils in the second round will be Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, a 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 winner over Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka in two hours, 12 minutes. The 32-year-old benefited from 15 aces and converted six of 13 break-point opportunities.