At 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in August of 2011, after winning an epic rain-delayed semifinal against John Isner at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (8-6), Gael Monfils was asked how he stayed focused on tennis during the hour-long rain-delay in the middle of the match.
“To be honest I don’t know if I’m really, like, focused. I’m just … when I go back to the locker room I have a ten minute session with my coach, and then I’m dancing and talking. Actually, we were both watching the sharks, you know.” (It was Shark Week).
I stopped analyzing Gael Monfils’ matches a couple of years ago. There’s no point. Trying to make sense of the senseless is the quickest way to suck the enjoyment out of something wonderful. And watching Monfils play tennis is wonderful. I like to let myself zone out, forget about my worries, and just enjoy the theater, no thinking allowed. It’s the tennis equivalent to a prime-time soap opera. Predictably unpredictable, overwrought with unnecessary drama, and full of cheap, tacky, and can’t-miss thrills. It’s less a tennis match and more a tennis experience, stretching the bounds of what the sport is or even should be.
His mindset is equally impossible to streamline. I sat in on his press conferences during his run to the Legg Mason final in 2011 and relished the opportunity to try and figure out how his brain worked. I was convinced that there was going to be a simple answer for all the madness, and that I was going to be the person to figure it out.
Instead I found myself hanging onto every word he said, completely pulled into the fantasy world in which he was living. He is so sincere and passionate when he’s talking, that even when he blatantly contradicts himself in the same answer, I found it charming. He didn’t seem to be trying to be deceitful or snarky or cunning. He was sincere about his truth and he was sincere about his lies to the point that I was completely unconvinced that he even knew the difference.
At 1:30 a.m. after he described his locker room adventures during the break, he was asked if he thought it would be hard to get prepared for the final the next day. He looked the reporter in the eye and shook his head like it was a ridiculous question. He explained how he would go to sleep by 4 a.m., get a few hours of rest, and then be ready to go. It was a final, they were easy to be ready for. Then he smiled and said with 100% conviction, “I’m like a machine.”
He lost the final the next day meekly to a resurgent Radek Stepanek. He was lethargic, erratic, and fully outclassed by the veteran. After the match I asked him about his abysmal record in finals (at the time it was 3-11, it’s now 4-13). Instead of being offended by the question, he offered a thorough and self-analytical look at his difficulties in finals.
“To be honest, my first finals it was impossible for me to win. It was Roddick, Ljubicic, and then Federer. You can forget about it. I think I had a couple of opportunities against Monaco, but on clay he’s very good, and then Almagro twice on clay. And then there was Petzchner … But to be honest, I think I’m a bit unlucky. There’s always something that keeps me from being my best in the finals.”
(You can see Gael’s full list of ATP finals and opponents here.)
I polled twitter for Gael Monfils stories, and tennis writer Ricky Dimon of The Grandstand did not disappoint. He shared an e-mail he sent to his friends after catching a Gael-Monfils-Marc Gicquel vs. Florian Mayer-Rogier Wassen first round doubles match on Court 17 at the US Open in 2011. Dimon arrived at the match after the French duo lost the first set 5-7, and said that the second set was absolutely “EPIC.” Here are the highlights, taken directly from his e-mail:
1) Monfils underhand serve.
2) On the SAME point, Monfils between-the-legs shot.
3) Entire return game in which Monfils and Gicquel had a contest to see who could hit more outright winners. Monfils won.
4) Gicquel hit a return that hit the back wall (probably on purpose), and Monfils just stood there for 30 seconds with his hand above his eyes (like, the STRAINING TO SEE JUST HOW FAR THAT BALL WENT look).
5) Monfils huge forehand return winner – immediately breaks out into the “Dougie” (you know, that dance).
6) Crowd sang Happy Birthday to Monfils – it WAS his birthday – in between points while Wassen was serving. The entire rendition of the song. Wassen then double faulted.
7) No-look, one-handed backhand short volley by Monfils. He ended up winning the point, too.
8) In general, Monfils played at least 75 percent of the points without moving one step, yet still somehow played decently. Mayer and Wassen were not exactly trying to hit winners.
9) Monfils hit return that hit the back wall. He challenged! Chair umpire refused. Monfils spent at least one minute telling the chair he wanted to challenge. All four players were dying laughing, as was the chair umpire. But the chair still refused for him to challenge. “It was pretty close,” Molina told Monfils.
10) Match point, Monfils serving. Gicquel literally stood at the back wall, 15 feet away from the court. Monfils played one on two against Mayer and Wassen and they stood at the net running him from corner, to corner, to corner, to corner. This went on for a solid 45 seconds, crowd was going crazy, finally Monfils could run no more, and he missed one in the net.
11) Monfils threw two rackets into the crowd, his shirt, the UMBRELLA that is overhanging his chair, AND the chair umpire’s Kleenex, which the umpire only had because he was laughing so hard the entire set that he was crying.
Monfils takes his singles game (slightly) more seriously. He’s been ranked as high as No. 7 in the world and has made the semifinals of the 2008 French Open. He has wins over Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Rafael Nadal. But his off-the-rockers style of play leads to many injuries, and he spent most of 2012 off the tour recovering from knee problems. There were rumors that he was depressed and that his career might be over, but he came back this month and already has a quarterfinal and semifinal under his belt.
He returned to Grand Slam play last night for the first time in a year under the lights of Margaret Court arena against the crafty Ukranian Aleksandr Dolgopolov. Wearing a blindingly bright highlighter-yellow shirt, Monfils started the match with four straight aces.
Dolgopolov proved to be a worthy co-star on the stage of surrealist tennis. The two found angles and crafted rallies that defied logic. They seemed to push one another farther and farther into the realm of the absurd. If a shot was impossible, they found a way. If the court was wide open, they missed. The crowd on Margaret Court arena, which can be brought to it’s feet by a moonball, acted like they were at a hockey game — I lost count of the number of waves in the first set. Monfils was clearly fueled by the crowd support. Dolgopolov often looked perturbed.
After dropping the first set in a tiebreak, Monfils took control of the match. He’s clearly fit, somewhat focused, and reveling being back in the spotlight. It’s where he belongs. It’s part of who he is.
He showed his nerves when he was serving for the match for the first time in the fourth set. He hit two double faults, and in a rare rally he got trapped at the net and waved his hands in the air like a goalie. Had he won the point, he surely would have been called for interference.
“I’d pay a lot of money to watch Gael play any day of the week,” Daren Cahill remarked from the commentator booth. “I’d also pay not to have to coach him.”
Of course, Monfils would disagree that coaching him is a daunting proposition. In 2011 at Legg Mason (when he was at a career high No. 7), he had recently split with his coach Roger Rasheed and started working with his friend and former physio Patrick Chamagne. “It’s not that difficult, I think, to coach me,” he said without a hint of sarcasm. “Everyone knows what my weaknesses are. The main stuff is to … be more aggressive. I’m lucky I’m gifted by God. I can run, slide, jump, surf.”
These extras … the sliding and jumping and, well, surfing … are all as much a part of Gael’s tennis game as forehands and backhands. There’s no division between practical and superfluous. (I once asked him about the transition from clay to hard courts: “For me, it’s the same. I slide.”)
Few dispute that Monfils has the talent to break into the top 5 or even win a Grand Slam, but he has a lot of work to do before he gets there. He knows this … or at least he used to. [“I need to] have confidence in myself, have a stronger belief. I think I’m a believer but I think to be at the very top I need to believe more. I need to achieve more confidence. I think now I do two hours practice, but I need to maybe do 30 minutes more, even if it’s harder,” he told a group of reporters 18 months ago. “I think I need to feel something inside me to help me go farther. I think I have the potential, but sometimes I’m like ‘Oh, this guy is too good …’ I forget that I’m playing good as well. I think sometimes I show too much respect to my opponent and I need to do be more selfish. I think if I do that I can reach the end of a Slam.”
But there’s a great possibility that Monfils will never be able to make the jump from flashy and capable wildcard to established and threatening top player. And there’s also a possibility that if he was able to make the leap, it would be at the expense of what makes him so special.
Everywhere he goes Monfils is a superstar. In Washington D.C. he frequently had a bigger crowd for his practice sessions than John Isner. Even casual fans know who he is. Whether you like his antics or despise them, it’s impossible to deny that he’s good for the game. His enthusiasm and love for the sport is contagious.
I’ll never forget the look of childish awe on his face that year at Legg Mason when he was asked whether he was looking forward to his semifinal showdown with John Isner. “Yeah, it will be fun tomorrow for sure, because it’s against Johnny in the States. It’s fun…. It’s a good mix, his game and my game. He will serve and volley, I will run, slide, and pass.” His eyes sparkled and grew to about half the size of his face as he envisioned the upcoming match. “I love it!”
“Always I remember what my parents said, that it’s a gift to be on the tennis court. I always enjoy being on the tennis courts since I was three years old. For me, the main thing is to enjoy the court and show my passion to the people.”