It is an old journalistic tradition: if you are stumped on a story, ask the bloke sitting next to you for help. The boss wants me to write about Gael Monfils; easy-peasy – go and talk to the French journos. Those honest, sober souls of L’Equipe are bound to know the skinny on their player. The L’Equipe mob know everything. Où sont les françaises?
Alas, les françaises were no help whatsoever. “We don’t know,” they said as one, looking amazed that anyone would even think to ask such a question.
It turns out that no one really knows anything about the tall and talented Monfils. Part athlete, part tennis player, part showman, he is a mystery to everyone, including himself. Had he a fraction of the application and dedication of a David Ferrer, let’s say, he would have been a regular fixture in the world’s top 10 for the past eight years. Then again, if he was as regimented as Ferrer, he would not be able to play the sort of exuberant, creative and, frankly, at times, ridiculous tennis that has taken him to a handful of grand slam quarter-finals and one grand slam semi-final. No, there is no rhyme or reason to Monfils.
At the moment, he is without a coach which may or may not be a good thing. Many players who have spent time alone on the circuit have found the experience beneficial. Roger Federer and Andy Murray both enjoyed spells by themselves, times when they were free to make their own decisions and be their own men. But given that no one really knows what kind of man Monfils is – other than a frightfully nice chap with delightful manners – becoming his own man could be rather dangerous.
The year has started well enough with a quarter-final appearance in Doha and a semi-final slot in Auckland, and now he is through to the third round here in Melbourne. That said, getting through the first two rounds has taken nine, nail-biting sets. To get past Yen-Hsun Lu on Thursday, Monfils needed a hatful of match points. On four of them, Monfils double faulted but, to even things out, he had served four aces to get the match points in the first place. Nothing is ever straightforward.
The good news is that after a long spell spent coping with tendinitis in both knees, particularly the left one, Monfils seems fit and strong at the moment. Quite how he manages to maintain that fitness is anyone’s guess given the pounding his body takes in every match.
With arms and legs seemingly made of elastic, he can contort his body into any shape he pleases as he chases down every ball. A little like the children’s entertainers who make models out of long, thin balloons, there is a sound of squeaking and then a little bit of magic. Squeak, squeak, squeak as Monfils’s massive sneakers manoeuvre into position and then backhand pass with added pirouette; squeak, squeak, squeak: running tweener winner; squeak, squeak, squeak: flying hotdog.
Now he must play Gilles Simon, one of his best friends on the tour, for a place in the last 16 in Melbourne. Like chalk and cheese, Simon – also coachless – is sensible, organised and hardworking while Monfils is... well, he’s just Gael. Opposites clearly attract.
Back on the L’Equipe desk, the French are looking glum and ruing what might have been. According to them, Monfils is technically better than Tsonga and physically better than Gasquet (any of the boys in the locker room will tell you Monfils is one of the best athletes on tour). They wonder how Monfils could have turned out and how many titles he could have won. Instead they have a wonderfully gifted player and a remarkable character to follow – all they can do is cling on to his coat tails and see where the journey takes them.
So, is Monfils’s current resurgence a fluke or the beginning of a comeback? Can Gael beat his pal Gilles? Is Monfils back to his best? To quote les françaises: “We don’t know.” And neither does Monfils. As the saying goes – ignorance is bliss.