Gael Monfils Is Gael Monfils

What, did you really want him to be someone else?
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The early rounds of tennis’ grand slams throw off a kind of manic carnival vibe. This is mostly due to so many matches happening simultaneously on so many courts, only a few of which involve the tournament’s true movers. These first few days are exciting in a general, Something Big Is Happening way, like Opening Day or the first weekend of March Madness, but the component individual matches that add up to that Something are usually forgettable.

Except sometimes one of these matches ends up being incredibly close or dramatic, which is sort of an early-arriving micro-happening, and then something happens later that makes that match seem especially salient or illuminating. Here I’m thinking of an encounter between Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils -- at the time, each promising teenagers coming off tremendously successful junior careers -- in the first round of the 2005 US Open.

This match ultimately earned its own little bit of infamy, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment, but it started out as just a good, close contest between two talented and well-matched kids.

Extremely well-matched, actually. At 6-5 in the first, Djokovic breaks Monfils to win the set; Monfils comes back to win the second set 6-4. Djokovic then wins the third set tiebreak 7-5, pushing Monfils to the brink.

A couple things you can’t help but notice about 19-year-old Gael Monfils. He’s fast -- not just quick but fast -- in a way that’s usually hard to see on a tennis court, the dimensions of which don’t allow many opportunities for players to reach their highest gear. But you see it with Monfils in the four bounding steps he needs to get from six feet behind the baseline up to net to retrieve a drop shot, his legs cycling so fast as to become a sprinter's vapor-trailing blur.

He also plays it pretty fast and loose when it comes to technique. With most pros, each forehand in a series of a thousand forehands is pretty much indistinguishable from the other nine hundred and ninety-nine forehands. This is the way high-level tennis is coached, with the goal being that in a player’s moment of absolute crisis, he or she can count on the reliable, muscle-memorized forehand. Monfils appears, in this match, either allergic to this kind of consistency or just bored by it.

Whatever the case, he resists it. This time he lays his forearm flat and just whips over the top of the ball; the next time he just slaps it, flat as a pancake, deep into the court; the time after that, he hits a squash shot, his racquet cutting underneath the ball so it skids low and hard off the surface. Sometimes he hits his forehand from an open stance and then sometimes he doesn’t; sometimes he follows through over his left shoulder, sometimes he finishes the shot with his racquet straight up and behind his right ear.

His favorite move off the backhand side is to jump off his back (left) foot and bring his racquet through the strike zone in mid-air, a shot that looks very cool and athletic and is also exceedingly difficult to hit with anything like the pace and accuracy necessary to stay in a point during an ATP tour match. But Monfils is doing this a lot, and somehow he’s making it work.

As in the current iteration -- as in all of them, to some extent -- the 2005 US Open was played in absolutely sweltering end-of-summer weather, the air thick and heavy and heavy on the chest; it's that New York mug that jams up your airways even when you’re just going around the block to buy ice or iced coffee or other cold things, preferably very cold things. It is even worse, we might as well assume, during a really competitive best-of-five set tennis match full of long, grinding baseline rallies, which is what Djokovic and Monfils are in the middle of.

They come out for the fourth set and Novak is, right off the bat, visibly gassed. He’s broken in all three of his service games -- has to take an injury timeout after being broken the second time, too, so the trainer can look at his shoulder -- and loses the fourth set 6-0. He looks clammy and pale and for all the world like someone who should get off the court and go find some air conditioning.

Meanwhile, Monfils -- swagging out in a loose-fitting fluorescent yellow tank top that’s about as contra prevailing mid-aughts tennis fashion as can be -- looks only slightly worse for wear. Monfils’ astonishing and seemingly effortless fitness is posing huge problems for Djokovic, who must choose either to play extremely high-risk, low-margin shots from uncomfortable positions or suffer through twenty-shot rallies that seem much more than Djokovic’s wobbling legs can handle. This is a choice between a fast death and a slow death, basically.

And then something weird and ethically questionable happens that totally changes the match. Monfils wins a long baseline rally to force deuce on Djokovic’s serve at 3-4 in the fifth set. After the point, Djokovic collapses -- falls supine onto the ground, chest heaving. It’s unclear how he’s hurt or even if he’s hurt; his problems appear to be of the cardiovascular, rather than musculoskeletal, variety, though breathing issues and general fatigue are specifically cited in the ATP rule book as insufficient causes for a medical break.

Nevertheless, a trainer is called. He doesn’t arrive on court until nearly ten minutes later, at which point he treats Djokovic for cramps in his calf. Monfils, sitting in his chair, is visibly upset at the delay. It’s more than twelve minutes before play resumes, an interval which has pretty clearly revitalized Djokovic and deflated Monfils.

You can probably see where this is headed, even if you are unfamiliar with Gael Monfils, and even if you had not watched Monfils’ thrilling, and then bizarrely capitulative, effort against Roger Feder in this year’s US Open quarterfinals. Djokovic recovers to win his service game; Monfils, looking increasingly agitated, double faults en route to a break of serve; Djokovic holds easily. And that’s game, set and match, even though the nominal winner has won 24 fewer points and infinitely fewer hearts than his opponent. Gael Monfils, for what would not be the last time, was out.

***

So: not terribly satisfying, as outcomes to tennis matches go. But illustrative, in its way, about how things would unfold for both players. Nole did exactly what he had to do to win, given the circumstances, and he has never stopped doing this. Faced with the prospect of a career-long tangle with arguably the most talented (Federer) and most ferocious (Rafael Nadal) tennis players ever to walk the earth, Djokovic turned himself into the Gluten-Free Terminator, the best conditioned and most durable player on tour, and created for himself a competitive advantage where none previously existed. To beat him in a best-of-five set match requires not just exquisite tennis but a mental resolve that few players are capable of summoning. That Kei Nishikori managed it on Saturday in the US Open semis was a tribute to Nishikori, but also a reminder of how seldom we’ve seen that happen in the nine years since Djokovic and Monfils met in Queens.

And Monfils -- well, Monfils played beautifully, gloriously unhinged tennis that day, and he has not stopped doing that, either. Against Roger Federer in their quarterfinal match Friday, Monfils did Monfils: drinking Coke during changeovers, intermittently harassing the chair umpire, double-faulting ten times, including twice in the fourth set’s deciding game. Up double match point in the fourth set and with a good look at a passing shot, Monfils overhit a backhand that could have ended the match. That was it: the crowd at Arthur Ashe knew it, Federer knew it, in all likelihood, Monfils himself knew it. Federer won the fifth set in about twenty minutes, because this is the way of things.

Those first two sets, though. The current era of men’s professional tennis belongs to the baseline-defender, and in many respects Monfils is the style’s prototypical specimen. His speed shrinks the court; on about a half-dozen occasions on Friday, Federer tried drop shots that Monfils ran down easily. He has the length and leaping ability of an NBA shooting guard, as well as the power to crank out 130 mile-an-hour aces and groundstroke winners off both wings, sometimes in mid-air. When he’s locked in, as he was for the first two of the three-and-a-half hours he played against Federer, it’s tempting to think that his game is what the future of tennis looks like.

Of course, at 28 years of age, Monfils is not the future of tennis. He’s nine years removed from that five-setter with Djokovic, years that have shown that his mental lapses are the product not of youthful indiscretion but seemingly of something more permanent and integral. Gael Monfils will never be as good as the sum of his talents suggest he could be; if he were, he wouldn’t be Gael Monfils. This is only as tragic or vexing as you want it to be. He is still Gael Monfils, which is a pretty unusual and fascinating thing to be.

He and Djokovic have met ten times since that match, and Djokovic has won every single one. There’s a wonderful video -- and here its worth mentioning that typing “Gael Monfils” into a Youtube search bar opens a door into one of the internet’s most absorbing K-holes -- from one of their most recent meetings at the quarterfinals of the Shanghai Masters. Djokovic hits a drop volley that lands just out of Monfils’ reach. Monfils takes his time getting up, and is summarily called for (wait for it) a code violation for taking too much time by chair umpire Carlos Bernardes.

The ensuing argument is pretty hilarious -- especially the part where Monfils claims to have just broken his hamstring -- but there’s a particularly poignant bit around the three-minute mark. A bemused Bernardes tells Monfils, “If you go straight to the baseline” -- as opposed to taking a leisurely stroll to the back fence to towel off, which is what Monfils did instead, and what drew the violation -- “I will not do anything.” And Monfils, whose expression is approximately that of a thirteen-year-old being told to wear a seatbelt, responds, “So, I have to be a robot-machine?”

To finally beat Djokovic? To win a grand slam? To make good on his preternatural physical gifts? Maybe. But La Monf is nobody’s robot-machine. He is fully, recognizably human (and also dancer), and fully realized in exactly the way he wants to be. It’s not just that it’s better this way, although -- at least for those of us watching -- it is. It’s that there’s so clearly no other way he’d want to be.


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Sometimes he hits his forehand from an open stance and then sometimes he doesn’t; sometimes he follows through over his left shoulder, sometimes he finishes the shot with his racquet straight up and behind his right ear.berrak gıda

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that in a player’s moment of absolute crisis, he or she can count on the reliable, muscle-memorized forehand. Monfils appears, in this match, either allergic to this kind of consistency or just bored by it.
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hat in a player’s moment of absolute crisis, he or she can count on the reliable, muscle-memorized forehand. Monfils appears, in this match, either allergic to this kind of consistency or just bored by it.
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Extremely well-matched, actually. At 6-5 in the first, Djokovic breaks Monfils to win the set; Monfils comes back to win the second set 6-4. Djokovic then wins the third set tiebreak 7-5, pushing Monfils to the brink.
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that makes that match seem especially salient or illuminating. Here I’m thinking of an encounter between Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils -- at the time, each promising teenagers coming off tremendously successful junior careers -- in the first round of the 2005 US Open.
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This match ultimately earned its own little bit of infamy, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment, but it started out as just a good, close contest between two talented and well-matched kids.
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between Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils -- at the time, each promising teenagers coming off tremendously successful junior careers -- in the first round of the 2005 US Open.
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This match ultimately earned its own little bit of infamy, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment, but it started out as just a good, close contest between two talented and well-matched kids.
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that makes that match seem especially salient or illuminating. Here I’m thinking of an encounter between Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils -- at the time, each promising teenagers coming off tremendously successful junior careers -- in the first round of the 2005 US Open.
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the four bounding steps he needs to get from six feet behind the baseline up to net to retrieve a drop shot, his legs cycling so fast as to become a sprinter's vapor-trailing blur.
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