“The Great What If.” That was the title of a post I wrote about Gael Monfils seven years ago, after he squandered a two-set lead to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round at the French Open. The Parisian native had, not for the first time, raised the hopes and voices of his home fans with his acrobatic brilliance, only to dash them again when he tripped himself up a few steps short of the finish line.
Of course, The Great What If referred to more than just one of Monfils’ matches. For years, many of us wondered, “What if he had become No. 1 in the world?” What if he had been a dominant champion rather than a mercurial talent? Would he have broadened tennis’s appeal, or changed its image around the world? I wondered it again at the US Open in 2014, when Monfils built a two-set lead on Roger Federer, had NBA star Kevin Garnett leaping out of his luxury-box suite to cheer him on, reached match point twice—and ultimately folded in five.
Watching Monfils this Sunday, six years after that memorable night in New York, it seemed to me that the Frenchman had left the “what if” label behind, and at 33 had become the player he was meant to be all along. No, he hasn’t reached No. 1 or changed the sport’s image. What he has done, though, is make himself into some almost as important: a reliably entertaining presence at the tour level. This weekend in Rotterdam, Monfils won his 10th career title. None have come at the majors or the Masters 1000s; instead, they’ve come in less-legendary locales like Montpellier (which he won for the third time last week), Washington, Doha, Metz, Stockholm, and Sopot.
Once upon a time, that may have seemed like a disappointing fate for a guy who nearly won all four majors in a single year as a junior. But in an era when the Big 3 concentrate their efforts on the Grand Slams, Monfils continues to bring life, and fans, to the smaller tournaments that remain the lifeblood of the tour. His smile, his sportsmanship, his shot-making flair, his healthy refusal to prioritize winning over friendship: For all of that, I think most of us have learned to forgive him his head-scratching unpredictability, and his lack of a major champion’s killer instinct.
As we saw over the last two weeks, when Monfils went 9-0 and dropped just one set on his way to back-to-back titles in Montpellier and Rotterdam, he has found a happy, controlled, effective medium for his game. He still can’t turn down a chance to pulverize a leaping overhead, and he’ll never be a stone-cold closer. But over the years Monfils has learned to win the old-fashioned way: By getting free points with his serve; by camping behind the baseline and making lots of balls; by working himself into position to hit forehands; by picking his spots to change direction and go for broke; and by finishing points at net. In the Rotterdam final, Monfils dominated Felix Auger-Aliassime not by out-hitting him, but by putting up a defensive wall that the teenage Canadian couldn’t find a way through. Players are always encouraged to be more aggressive, but Monfils understood that, against a young opponent on a big stage, there was a smarter way.
“It was a passive match from me,” Monfils said. “I chose to be in defense quite a lot…I knew physically, it would be tough for him to come through me. I was doing this great.”
Monfils was in complete control when he served for the match at 6-2, 5-2, and went up 40-15. But old habits, and old nerves, die hard, and he became tentative with the title on his racquet. Auger-Aliassime saved both match points, broke Monfils, and held to make it 5-4. Were we about to see the return of the old, wobbly La Monf? Not this time; he kept it simple and hit three unreturnable serves for the title.
Afterward, Monfils was ecstatic about the victory; like Washington, D.C., Rotterdam is a tournament that one of his tennis idols, Arthur Ashe, won in the 1970s, and we know that it makes Monfils proud to see his name on a list of champions that also includes Ashe’s. But Monfils didn’t sound satisfied. Perhaps inspired by his girlfriend Elina Svitolina’s own Slam chase, Monfils still believes he can take home the game’s ultimate prizes.
“[I’d like] to reach the final at another Masters 1000, why not try to win and keep the dream alive?” said Monfils, who would also like to crack the Top 5 for the first time. “The dream is to win a Grand Slam and that is what I’m playing for and training for. It’s tough, but I believe that maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to win one.”
Even if Monfils never fulfills that dream, he has still enriched the game and helped change it for the better. More than his play this weekend, I was struck by his post-match handshakes with the two players he beat in the semifinals and final, Filip Krajinovic and Auger Aliassime. Both times, Monfils put his arm around his vanquished opponent, grabbed his hair affectionately, and said something that made him smile, and, for a second, seemingly feel better about his defeat.
Instead of thinking of the tour as a cutthroat, kill-or-be-killed arena, Monfils has always thought of it as a brotherhood—the experience he shares with his opponent on court is just as important as the end result. That’s an attitude that has rubbed off on many of his fellow tour-mates over the years—not all of them, but enough to make the ATP a more sporting place than it once was. It’s an attitude that likely appeals to fans just as much as his leaping overheads do.
Monfils is no longer The Great What If. What he became has been more than good enough for tennis.