Here is a man who has been deservedly chastised by journalists and even fellow competitors for sometimes abusing his talent, for having the wrong set of professional priorities and for not focussing on what really matters. I am certain his most ardent admirers have been absolutely exasperated at times by the attitudinal issues of this fellow who is so likable off the court but often so perplexing on it.
And yet, Monfils has altered his ways significantly over the last couple of seasons and, in my view, substantially this year. Over the course of his career, Monfils has been hindered by a couple of different habits that have cost him dearly. He was too frequently a showboat, going for “hotshots” that made no sense at important moments. That pattern was deeply disturbing to his legion of followers who wanted more from him and believed in some respects that he was betraying them.
The second thing that got in his way was an excessively defensive playing posture. Monfils would camp out too far behind the baseline, spitting balls back from there, daring his opponents to stop him from defending as maybe only he can. But he refused to raise his level of aggression to where it needed to be. He is 6’4″, and weighs 177 pounds. In other words, he is a big guy with awesome strength. But rather than stepping into the court and taking control of rallies, he almost always hung back and relied almost completely on his defense. That harmed Monfils immeasurably. Until recently, he seemed destined to be an underachiever. He was not willing to take matters more into his own hands, to find openings to force the issue with a fierce combination of speed and power. He wanted to thrive on foot speed alone.
But, lo and behold, here is Monfils in the semifinals of a major for only the second time in his career. His last journey to the penultimate round of a Grand Slam tournament was way back in 2008 at Roland Garros, when he had essentially no clue what he was doing, other than having fun. Monfils gave Roger Federer a hard four set test in Paris that year. Since then, before his breakthrough the other day, he had made it to five quarterfinals at the majors, but stumbled each and every time for a variety of reasons. The most excruciating of those setbacks was right here at the U.S. Open two years ago.
Facing Federer under the lights, Monfils was electrifying in building a two sets to love lead. He lost the third set but then had two match points late in the fourth. On the first, Federer hit a forehand inside out swing volley solidly, going, of course, to the Monfils backhand. Monfils tracked it down and had a play on it. The court was open. Federer was out of position and at his adversary’s mercy. But the ball got up marginally too high for the Frenchman, who could not control his two-hander up the line. It was an agonizing miss for Monfils. When he got to match point for the second tine, Monfils left a running crosscourt forehand far too short, and Federer demolished a forehand down the line for an easy winner.
Federer secured that set, and on they went to a fifth. But, for the most part, Monfils went away. His effort in that final set left a lot to be desired. Federer ran away with it. Monfils clearly exposed his own despondency, competing halt-heartedly, allowing Federer to glide to victory, surrendering in many ways. He did compensate to a degree for that defeat by toppling Federer on opening day at the 2014 Davis Cup Finals, but 2015 yielded little of consequence for him. Monfils failed to get beyond the fourth round in any of the majors during the season.
But this year he seems authentically transformed. He has not shaken up the world with his results, but the range of his consistency has been impressive. Monfils opened his 2016 campaign by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, then went to the final of Rotterdam and the quarters of Indian Wells. He was a quarterfinalist again in Miami, losing to Kei Nishikori despite having five match points. On the clay, he was runner-up to Rafael Nadal at Monte Carlo. He missed the French Open when he was suffering from a virus, and that stalled him for a while.
Yet he has had a first rate summer, winning Washington, losing to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of Toronto, and reaching the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games. Once more, he was unlucky against Nishikori. Monfils was up triple match point in the final set tie-break at 6-3, but never won another point against an immensely poised Nishikori. No wonder Monfils headed into the U.S. Open with so much confidence and so few insecurities. In his terrific run into the semifinals, he has not lost a set in five matches. To be sure, his draw has been kind. He has cut down Gilles Muller, qualifier Jan Satral, Nicolas Almagro, Marcos Baghdatis and Lucas Pouille. He could not have asked for more in terms of adversaries that he figured to beat.
The fact remains that the Monfils of years gone by would surely have lost some sets along the way. There would have been lapses in concentration, periods of indifference, and stretches of instability. But that has not been the case across this fortnight. Monfils has been first rate in every way, performing sensibly and diligently, keeping his mind on his business. It has been revelatory across the board. Now he can only hope to stay healthier. In 2016, he has had to withdraw from four tournaments: Marseille with a right leg injury, Munich with a groin strain, Roland Garros with the virus and Halle with a virus as well.
In any case, after he upended Pouille the other day at the U.S. Open, Monfils spoke about how he has been perceived, and candidly defended himself against critics like myself. When asked about his focus against Pouille, Monfils replied, “If today I drop my racket and I do a slide, you will say I will entertain people, you know, no matter what. Sometimes I can hear that….. You make it up. Oh, like he’s doing a show. or if I do a trick shot, one, and still kill it, you will say I’m a showman. So with all respect to everyone, it is you guys who put me on the spot. Today I think I didn’t have the chance to do it but Lucas hit two good tweeners. I don’t think you will tell him he tried to entertain.”
He returned to that topic later, adding, “It’s funny. I get to be more consistent now with the winning. It’s easier to say because I’m winning more matches and that makes it tougher for some people to say that I’m just a showman.”
Monfils backed up his point in another way, saying, “I think when I dive on the court I do not dive for people [watching]. Come on. To be honest, I gonna hurt myself for people? No. I dive because I want to win the point. Definitely I want to win the point. You know, when you make the show, honestly, it’s to entertain, but it’s to win. So what’s the point to make the show and lose actually. People think, ‘Oh, he’s jumping, he’s sliding.’ In the end, you think I’m stupid?”
I understand why Monfils addressed these issues so forthrightly. He is proud of what he has done and wants to explain actions that perhaps some of us will never understand. In my view, he has changed his ways, and all for the better. He will be more entertaining if he continues winning regularly and elevating his game, because his triumphs will not occur accidentally; he will have to earn them with professionalism and percentages.
In the semifinals, Monfils will take on none other than world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Djokovic holds a 12-0 advantage in their career series. Their rivalry commenced at the 2005 U.S.Open in the first round, with the 18-year-old Djokovic stopping Monfils 7-5 in the fifth set. They have had some spirited skirmishes, with two of their contests settled in final set tie-breaks. So Monfils can push Djokovic, but can he beat him now for the first time on such a monumental stage with so much riding on the outcome?
I have my doubts. As Monfils says of the Serbian, “It’s very hard to remember a match where he wasn’t hitting the ball clean—maybe one or two a year. It’s amazing. And the way he handles everything tactically that we try to make against him. I think he’s a great champion… I have a second opportunity to get to my first Slam final, and the opportunity to maybe beat him for the first time in the main tour, to beat the world No. 1. That’s it.”
Monfils has done well to conserve so much energy on his way to the semifinals, sweeping 15 consecutive sets in his five victories. But physically his task against Djokovic will be so much more demanding. Almost inevitably, Djokovic will wear Monfils down, orchestrating the points with a long term strategy of taking away the Frenchman’s legs, trying to reduce him to rubble. If Monfils has a great serving day against the world’s premier returner, perhaps he can make a go of it. But he plainly understands how difficult it will be to get the job done.
Be that as it may, Gael Monfils is playing the best sustained tennis of his life. Win or lose against Djokovic, he owes it to himself and his big band of supporters to maintain his hard work, keep going strong and make sure everyone realizes how good he can be when he is at his very best.