By Jane Voigt
On his 30th birthday last Thursday Gael Monfils played silly games with his team on a side court in the pouring rain at the USTA National Tennis Center.
“Just having fun,” he told ESPN today immediately after eliminating countryman Lucas Pouille in one quarterfinal of the day, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. “Only once you get 30. I was having fun with my team.”
That playful Monfils is familiar. He does crazy stuff during matches, too. Leaps, spins, dives for balls until his body is parallel to the ground. The other day in his fourth round match against Marcos Baghdatis, Monfils stopped mid-point to straighten his shoelaces.
“To be honest,” Monfils said, after the match, “I have no idea what happened. Sometimes those points don’t mean anything for me. Just … I don’t know. I just lose it.”
The career consequences, due to his antics, are well known. Over a 12-year career, he’s won six career titles, when, practically speaking he should have twice that many. Roger Federer once called him the most athletic player on tour. Yet, ‘LaMonf,’ just wanted to have fun and do his own thing with and without a coach.
Under the tutelage of Coach Jan Tillstrom, though, Monfils has transformed. His season has been the most consistent of his career.
- Australian Open — Quarterfinal
- Rotterdam — Finalist
- Indian Wells — Quarterfinal
- Miami — Quarterfinal
- Monte Carlo — Runner up
- Washington D.C. — Won
- Toronto — Semifinal
- Rio Olympics — Quarterfinal
- U.S. Open — Semifinal
This record has thrilled Monfils fans who have waited, and waited, for him to turn off the dramatics and play the tennis that has come in flashes of brilliance.
His brilliance has been on display this U. S. Open.
Today, he reached his first-ever U. S. Open semifinal and hasn’t dropped a set. Andy Murray, considered a top pick to win the title, can’t boast that. Juan Martin del Potro could say that, although his last opponent, Dominic Thiem, retired in their match.
In comparison, Monfils has reached only one other major semifinal … Roland Garros, 2008. He lost in four tight sets to Roger Federer.
His title in Washington D. C. was his first at an ATP 500 level, too, his first title in over two years and his first on American soil.
“For me, it’s a big step,” Monfils said, after winning Citi Open in Washington. “But hopefully I’ll have [a] bigger than 500.”
He had his chances at the ATP 1000 Monte Carlo final, earlier in the year, but came up short against Rafael Nadal in the last set. Monfils’s tank was on empty.
The last man to win the U. S. Open without dropping a set was Neale Fraser in 1960. It’s unlikely Monfils can replicate that achievement. The competition is way tougher now and his semifinal will more-than-likely position him across the net from the number-one seed and odds-on-favorite to win … Novak Djokovic.
“I think is no question about that,” Monfils said, when asked who he thought would win in New York. “Is Novak. He is the favorite. And then you get Andy [Murray] also; then you get Stan [Wawrinka]. I think you’ve got a lot of guys.”
Monfils has lots of respect for the top men. He thinks they are ‘naturally gifted,’ that ‘physically they are still the best.’
Monfils’s humility, when speaking about his fellow athletes on tour, should grace him with a measure of character that can be argued as essential for a Grand Slam winner. The so-called Big Four — Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, Murray — are all men who have learned and displayed humility throughout their careers. And, they have won 42 of the last 46 men’s major singles titles.
“No, not really,” the Frenchman told the press, when asked if his approach was different for this slam. “I think my approach [for this] slam [is] like I approach my season. It was in a good way. I’m [on a] good track. I’m playing with more structure, discipline … not messing around.”