Monfils has spoken before of his love for New York City. In 2014, when he last reached the quarterfinals at the Open, he talked about his visits with his father to the Bronx, and how much the support of the African-American community there meant to him.
Two years later, Monfils, who turned 30 last week, has made it past the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows for the first time. It was the capstone to the most consistent season of his career. On Tuesday he cited another African-American as a role model and motivating force for his recent success.
“I’ve been respecting a lot what LeBron James [has done],” Monfils said. “His mindset and the work he put in to win this final, I think is a big inspiration for me.”
Monfils said he would love to pick King James’ brain.
“Got many questions about how he is,” he said, “how he feels, how it is to be the leader, like a great champion playing with him. ‘How do you think about everything?’”
Monfils may not have turned himself into the king of tennis just yet, but there has been a new, Jamesian sense of mission in his game this season. Often injured and wildly unpredictable, he has always been one of the game’s indispensable characters and supreme athletes, but he has also been cast as one of its great underachievers, a man who loves the show more than the battle. Many of us lamented this fact; we believed that Monfils could have transformed the sport and its image had he been a No. 1 player—which he was as a junior—rather than a No. 15.
Now, with his win on Tuesday, Monfils will crack the Top 10 for the first time in five years. He has reached the quarterfinals or better at nine of 13 events in 2016. He sports a 40-11 record and has a good chance of qualifying for the elite ATP World Tour Finals in London in November. All of that while dealing with a virus that put him in the hospital during the French Open.
None of this seemed to be in the cards for Monfils at the start of the season. He finished 2015 ranked 24th, and it had been eight years since his lone appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, at the 2008 French Open. Then Monfils, who has been coach-less for long periods in the past, began working with Mikael Tillstrom of Sweden. The Frenchman has kept their formula for success on the QT; “I’m working better, differently,” was all he would say about it on Tuesday. Tillstrom has talked about wanting to get Monfils to move forward more often, and they simplified his service motion. Clearly he has La Monf’s ear.
Monfils has benefited from a fortunate draw in New York. The 25th-ranked Pouille was the only seed he faced, and he looked exhausted after having played three straight five-set matches. But Monfils has made the most of his good fortune; so far he hasn’t dropped a set, and the circus shots have been few and far between.
“I think I approach my Slam like I approach my season,” he said after his fourth-round win over Marcos Baghdatis. “It was in a good way ... I play very tough tennis, you know.”
Monfils had some tough words for the media on Tuesday when asked about his showman’s reputation.
“I think when I dive on the court, I dive not for people,” he said. “To be honest, I gonna hurt myself for people? ... I dive because I want to win the point … You know, when you make the show, honestly, it’s to entertain, but it’s to win. So what’s the point to make the show and lose?”
Essentially, Monfils said that if he tries one trick shot or wild leap, it doesn’t mean he’s not trying to win the match. His “showmanship” is a gifted athlete’s form of self-expression. This is believable, but also a little different from what he said at the Open in 2014. Back then, he told the press that if he was “fed up” with a match, he would “just leave it.” Over the years, he hasn't always felt like competing.
But it’s hard to think of a match in 2016 that La Monf has just left. Perhaps most impressive has been his ability to bounce back from disappointment at the Olympics in Rio—he had match points against Kei Nishikori to reach the medal round—and make this career-best run in New York.
“What does Gael Monfils want?” I asked in a piece I wrote about his 2016 surge last month. He had always seemed happy to treat the tour as a brotherhood, rather than a battlefield. But I also wondered if this was, deep down, a defense mechanism, a way to avoid putting himself on the line.
This year, Monfils has had it both ways. He has put himself on the line without sacrificing any of his old joie de vivre. It has been one of the best shows in tennis.