You probably know that Gael Monfils’ nickname is “La Monf.” But were you aware that his opponent on Thursday in Shanghai, David Goffin, is known in some quarters of the tennis world as “La Goff?”
Does that moniker seem a little, I don’t know, grand for the bashful Belgian? It’s hard to say so after the season he has put together in 2016. Whatever Goffin’s game lacks in drama, it more than makes up for in smooth-swinging appeal.
On Thursday, La Goff met La Monf in one of the more highly-anticpated matches in Shanghai. It was a contest that had, as we like to say, “implications” for the Race to London. Before Thursday, Monfils was sixth in that race, Goffin 11th; the Top 8 finishers will gather at The O2 Arena next month. Both men are looking to make their first trips to the year-end championships. That honor is typically seen as a reward for a season well spent, and there’s no question that Monfils and Goffin deserve it this time.
Monfils’ sudden surge at 30 has garnered a good deal of press and fan attention. That’s hardly a surprise; he’s one of tennis’ most popular showmen, one of its most electrifying athletes and one of its biggest head-shaking, what-if stories. We’ve been waiting for La Monf to get serious for a decade, and—his unfortunate U.S. Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic aside—he finally did in 2016.
Equally unsurprising is the fact that Goffin’s own sudden surge has come with far less fanfare. The undersized 25-year-old—he’s 5’11” and weighs the proverbial buck fifty—is not, by the standards of, say, the NBA, an electrifying, high-flying athlete. He is not, by any standard, a showman; I’m still not sure I’ve ever seen him crack a full-fledged smile. And unlike with Monfils, no one has ever wondered if tennis would be a more popular sport if only David Goffin would win more matches.
But those of us who love tennis know better. We know that Goffin’s game, in its own reticent way, is every bit as much a wonder to watch as Monfils’.
Can you tell that Goffin is the son of a teaching pro? He has the compact, uncluttered strokes to prove it. There’s nothing extra, or funky, or unorthodox—or wrong—in either his forehand or backhand. At the same time, Goffin’s style could never be called cold or merely precise. There’s a patina of polish to his swing and his timing, and the way he can change directions with the ball at will while not actually appearing to do anything different with his stroke. And even if Goffin can’t fly as high as Monfils, he’s one of the few players who can match—OK, almost match—his speed around the court.
Goffin is, as they say, a tennis player’s tennis player, and maybe it takes one to appreciate one.
“He plays very clean,” Novak Djokovic said after beating Goffin in the Miami Open semifinals in April. “A tennis that’s beautiful for the eye, you know, to watch, and the way he moves.”
Speaking of that Miami match, while it was a showcase for Goffin’s ball-striking strengths, it also highlighted his biggest weakness: He struggles to find the power, both in body and mind, to close. After working his way to a lead in the first-set tiebreaker against Djokovic, Goffin flubbed the easiest of overheads, blew the point and lost a set he had all but won.
This past weekend, Goffin ran into the same problem in the Tokyo final. Two points from victory against Nick Kyrgios at 5-4 in the third set, he somehow managed to lose the next three games and the match. While Goffin has risen from No. 26 to a career-high No. 12 in 2016, he has yet to win a title this season. He’s far too skilled to only have two tournament wins for his career. This is the problem with being 5’11” and a buck fifty: No matter how smooth your strokes are, you’re always going to feel as if you’re hitting them uphill.
That’s probably how Goffin felt for much of his match with the taller and rangier Monfils. Goffin was 0-2 against Monfils coming in, and nearly went 0-3 after losing the first set and going down a break in the second. Fortunately for La Goff, though, La Monf does have one thing in common with him: those troublesome nerves. This time it was Monfils who felt them, and Goffin who took advantage to come back and win in three sets. In the process, he kept his London hopes alive for another day.
Goffin, as far as I’m aware, has never been described as “good for the game,” the way Kyrgios has. But this week it’s the Belgian, after losing to Kyrgios in that heartbreaker in Tokyo on Sunday, who is still putting in the quiet work of entertaining fans—with his tennis and his tennis alone—in Shanghai. So I’ll say it: The sport could use more guys who play like David Goffin.