Gael Monfils has done a lot of unique, memorable, instantly-viral things on a tennis court over the course of his 15-year career. He’s leapt as high as anyone ever has for overheads, and flung himself so far across the court for volleys that he’s made his body go completely horizontal.
But gutting out 12-minute games on his opponent’s serve? When that opponent keeps wiping away break points with one swing of his racquet and forcing him to start all over again at deuce? That’s what the Nadals, the Hewitts, the Sharapovas of the world do, not this happy-go-lucky Frenchman.
Except...that’s exactly what Monfils did in his 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 second-round win over Leonardo Mayer at Indian Wells on Sunday. At 3-3 in the first set, Monfils kept earning break points, and Mayer kept coming up with something special to save them. But rather than wearying of the struggle and pulling the ripcord on a couple of forehands, the way the Monfils of old might have, he did what any stubbornly patient player would do: He kept his head down, kept getting back to break point, and was finally rewarded when a Mayer forehand landed a millimeter wide of the sideline.
In case you hadn’t heard yet, there’s a New Monfils on tour in 2019. Yes, we’ve seen this more-focused, less fun-loving version of La Monf before, most recently in 2016, when he went 44-17, won his first 500-level event, at the Citi Open, and finished in the Top 10 for the first time. So far this year, Monfils is on track to be even better. He’s 13-4, he won his second career 500, in Rotterdam, and he’s back in the Top 20 and seemingly only heading upward from there. Instead of using his energy to entertain, he’s using it to play the type of forceful, forward-moving tennis that so many people have wished he would play in the past.
“New goals, new team, new routine, obviously wins under my belt,” Monfils, 32, said last week in Dubai when he was asked about his attitude in 2019. “Everything is going fine. I just try to keep doing what I’m doing. Every day a little more, a little more to improve.”
As in 2016, Monfils has been inspired by the energy and optimism of a new coaching relationship; then it was Mikael Tillstrom, now it’s Liam Smith, a London native who has coached for Tennis Australia and lives in Miami. So far, Smith has tried to get Monfils to use his speed not just for defensive purposes, the way he likes, but for offensive ones as well—he’s even serving and volleying on a regular basis now. Just as important, Monfils has been more solid on his return of serve—traditionally a weakness—as well as from the baseline, and he’s using his serve with a new and long-hoped-for ruthlessness.
Instead of laughing off his mistakes, Monfils is getting angry about them, and using that anger to fuel him. In Dubai, when he failed to close out Ricardas Berankis in straight sets, Monfils became incensed, yelling across the net after points and fist-pumping constantly; Berankis may not have known what to make of it, because he didn’t win another game.
“I really had to get upset and bring more energy for me, to move my legs, to be a bit more aggressive on my shots,” Monfils said. “The last three games was just pure anger.”
Pure anger from lovable La Monf? It worked in Dubai, and a similar intensity worked today.
Against Mayer, Monfils gave back an early service break in the second set, and threw away a couple of games after an argument with chair umpire Carlos Bernardes. At the start of the third, though, he put that behind him.
“At the end I refocused and won the third set,” Monfils said. “I overreact because of the frustration.”
Of course, Monfils has another new member of his team, Top 10 WTA player Elina Svitolina. He traveled to Dubai early to watch her there, and she was in the stands to see him beat Mayer today. Are the famously intense Ukrainian’s work habits rubbing off on him? Yes—and, well, no.
“I admire what she’s doing, how she work, the mentality she has,” Monfils said of Svitolina. “It’s incredible. But I always say not for me, not for me. She’s too serious for me. It’s her way. It’s her way to be the way she is.”
“Me, the only motivation that I will say that we have is to make the other proud. I love when she win. I’m very proud of her. I think same for her.”
There’s a sense of parity about the Monfils-Svitolina relationship that’s appealing. It’s about them, but it also seems to be about tennis, about a shared desire to improve and succeed. Even if Monfils can’t work as hard as Svitolina, he’s channeling some of her fight, which has often been the missing ingredient with him. The New Monfils won’t live forever; they never do. But it will be fun to see how high this one can climb, and what he can find in himself.