Melbourne: It was an epic battle of the wounded that only one Frenchman could survive. The victor, No. 14-seeded Gilles Simon, hobbled off the court well after midnight. He needed three or four hours of massage and other treatment - he doesn't quite remember. He finally crawled into bed at 5 a.m. on Sunday.
Beating Gael Monfils, a friend who is ranked 86th, made him neither happy nor sad, he said in a news conference held much later Sunday. Toward the end of the match, he said, his pain was so intense that he didn't feel like he was on a tennis court but in a dream. The final score was 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 1-6, 8-6.
Some in the Twitter-sphere called it "Les Miserables," although the nearly five-hour tennis match lasted considerably longer than the Hollywood or Broadway versions. France's sports daily, l'Equipe, described it Sunday as "Dante-esque" - an apt analogy because the next circle for Simon is the fourth round at the Australian Open where he faces a very well-rested and intensely motivated Andy Murray.
The U.S. Open champion and No. 3-seeded Murray is on a mission to win his second consecutive Grand Slam title. Simon knows what to expect against Murray, the 25-year-old Scotsman. They have played 10 times before, and Murray has won 9 of them.
Is he worried about the match? "Yes," said Simon, without hesitation. After postponing his mandatory post-match news conference due to medical reasons, Simon spoke to reporters Sunday afternoon, still rubbing his sore right arm. "It will be really, really difficult," said Simon, who had less than 48 hours to recover. "For sure, he will have the advantage."
His strategy against Murray is "to go on court and to do the maximum to bother him and to give him a hard time." Simon showed in his match against Monfils that he is a fighter, although the playing field was leveled because his opponent was suffering, too.
Both players winced in pain for much of the match, needing to call in trainers on several occasion to massage out cramps and other ailments. Simon said his cramps forced him to hit softer and serve slower in attempts to just get the ball over the net. This led to a many long rallies that at times looked more like a practice session with both players glued to the baseline.
The longest rally of the match - and of the tournament so far - lasted for 71 shots and nearly 2 minutes. Videos of the rally, which came during the second set, were quickly uploaded to YouTube. Other players were riveted to the match and posted live social media commentary.
One of them was No. 13-seeded Milos Raonic, who tuned in after winning his own third-round match despite feeling fever and aches. "I don't want this match to end. And it keeps going!" Raonic tweeted. The match endured for 348 points - only 4 points of which were won at net.
The last set alone lasted 94 minutes. It finally ended when Simon gingerly hit a (slow) 125 kph - or 77 mph - serve and Monfils returned it with a backhand error into the doubles alley. Simon threw back his head and roared before walking to the net to embrace his friend. He then hobbled over to greet an on-court interviewer and said: "I was almost dying after the end of the second set."
"I was in bad shape," Simon said at his news conference Sunday. Asked what ailed him, he laughed: "It was everything." For the first time in his career, he said he felt like he was cramping everywhere.
"I don't even know where - I had a cramp here, a cramp here," he said pointing to his leg, then to his neck, before adding, "It's not even possible to cramp here" - in the neck. "I felt I played the end of the match like in a dream, like I was not even on the court," he said. "I was just hitting the ball, trying to run, trying to catch it, and not thinking anymore."
After it was over, he said, "I was too tired to be happy or upset." Simon is one of four Frenchmen into the fourth round, matching the country's record at the Australian Open. In 27 previous Grand Slam appearances, he has only reached the quarterfinals once, at the 2009 French Open.
A tight-jawed Monfils, who held a brief news conference just after 1 a.m., was decidedly upset. "I am disappointed. I am annoyed," he was quoted as saying. "Why? Because I lost. I have the right to be disappointed and annoyed." About his friend, Simon. "He was a little stronger physically. Bravo to him," Monfils said.
Simon has had a rough ride so far, playing four-setters in the first round and second before his draining five-setter against Monfils. Murray has had a much easier time so far. "I won in straight sets my first three matches." Murray said, explaining why he felt confident after his third-round win.
"I'm sitting here happy that I'm through to the fourth round having not having played my best tennis today," Murray said. "Hopefully I'll improve for the next one."