Don’t look now—or do look now, because it might not last—but Gael Monfils is up to No. 14 in the world. He hasn’t been ranked higher than that since May 2012.

Don’t look now—or do look now, because it might not happen again for a while—but Monfils just won a tournament, the sixth and most important of his 12-year career, at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. The Frenchman, who has been just about everything you can be on a tennis court other than a closer, had lost eight of his last nine finals.

Don’t look now—or do look now, because you never know when it’s going to end—but a month shy of his 30th birthday, Monfils is playing (dare we say it?) consistent tennis. This year he has reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, in Indian Wells and in Miami, and made it to the final in Monte Carlo. He might have done something similar at the French Open if he hadn't ended up in the hospital with a virus.

Monfils, from what I saw, didn’t showboat or waste energy in D.C., where he knocked off Borna Coric and Alexander Zverev, two of the ATP’s brightest young talents, and played clutch tennis to come back and beat Ivo Karlovic in three sets in the final. And while Monfils couldn’t resist throwing in a no-look backhand during his 7-6 (6), 6-0 win over Vasek Pospisil in Toronto on Wednesday, it was the famously flaky Frenchman who held his nerve at the end of the tight first set and stole a tiebreaker that appeared to belong to his opponent.

So what’s gotten into La Monf? Don’t ask him.


“You know, I’m quite quiet on this,” Monfils said on Tuesday in Toronto when asked what his coach, Mikael Tillstrom, has been getting him to do differently. “I just say that I have good work with him. He’s changing for sure a lot of stuff, as you can see.”

Such as?

“What, I won’t tell you. And how, I won’t tell you, either.”

Monfils began working with Tillstrom, a 44-year-old former pro from Sweden, at the suggestion of Stan Wawrinka last year, and the results have spoken for themselves. The most obvious change they’ve made has been in Monfils’ serve. Rather than standing straight up and down as he tosses the ball, he rocks his body into the court now. Otherwise, Tillstrom has said that he wants Monfils to conserve energy and finish more points at the net. While it hardly takes a tennis mastermind to suggest those changes, it’s implementing them on a daily basis that’s the trick. Monfils, who has gone long periods without a coach, has said that the right one can be hard to find.

“It’s not easy to feel someone,” Monfils said two years ago, when he showed up at the U.S. Open with only his agent in tow. “That person has to be, for me, like good, first of all. But [he] has to be hard and also understand my personality. Because I don’t think I’m easy.”


It has never been easy to be a Monfils fan. I’ve lost count of the number of times in the last decade that he has looked ready to settle down, get serious and make a concerted effort to fulfill his potential as a player rather than an entertainer. But whether it's because of an injury, or because he inevitably reverts to his showman’s instincts, Monfils the shot-making magician always pulls the rug out from under his audience in the end.

The fundamental problems with Monfils’ game—a clunky return of serve, a predilection for passivity from the baseline—remain. But the real issue isn’t technical or tactical—it’s psychological: Monfils lacks a killer’s instinct. He thinks of tennis as a brotherhood rather than a cutthroat competition. If he’s not enjoying himself on court, he has no trouble handing the match over to his opponent. Monfils rarely looks as happy as he does when he’s at the net, hugging the guy who just beat him.

“For me, tennis is a sport,” Monfils has said. “It’s not a job, you know. It’s a sport ... I just want to be happy. If I’m not happy, fine. Have it, you know ... It’s like, OK, next one.”

To each his own, of course, but I’ve often wondered: Does Monfils really not care about winning all that much, or does he just not want to admit it to himself? It’s easier, after all, to make your way through the tour, easier to be happy for longer periods of time, when you don’t worry too much about the results.


Either way, as frustrating as Monfils can be, this era wouldn’t have been quite as golden without his shot-making and showmanship. And his emotion. I thought his speech after his win in D.C. was moving. He talked about how he had seen the names of two of his heroes, Yannick Noah and Arthur Ashe, on the champion’s awning there, and how that had motivated him.

“I grew up with those names,” Monfils said. “Definitely to have my name next to them, it’s priceless. It meant a lot for me. I’m very happy, very proud.”

Ashe and Noah, of course, won bigger titles, including each of the four majors. As he enters his 30s, could Monfils put his name alongside theirs on one of those winner’s trophies? I doubt it. But it would be interesting, wouldn’t it, if he decided that he was willing to put his happiness on the line to make it happen?