- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- Gael Monfils is watching a moth.
Technically, Monfils is conducting a post-match U.S. Open news conference in a little side room for about six or seven French journalists, and he's cracking up his countrymen more than occasionally with his impish expressions and droll jokes. But he's also showing an impressive ability to multitask as he keeps talking without a break, even as his eyes are following the darting flight of the moth back and forth, up and down, round and round as if he's absolutely fascinated.
By the moth.
"I like the moth," Monfils smiled and shrugged later, outside the room. "Why not? I'm always the happy-go-lucky guy."
Monfils' frequent preference to mix work and play is among the reasons so many crowds around the world, not just here in New York, find him so charming to watch. The swashbuckling Frenchman is one of the great showmen in tennis -- for better or worse.
Scotland's Andy Murray, a fan and contemporary from their junior tennis days, calls Monfils "probably the best athlete ever to play the game." The 6-foot-4, 177-pound Monfils has the foot speed and telescopic reach to shrink the court like no one else. And no one is more acrobatic, or a better leaper, or capable of hitting more impossible shots on the run. But Monfils' results have never lived up to the hype that followed him to the pros in 2004 after he earned Australian, French and Wimbledon titles and the No. 1 world ranking as a junior.
The good news is, Monfils is only 24. He's inched close to the top 10 or a few breakthroughs at the Slams when he's been able to stay healthy. And in the past 24 to 48 hours, Monfils had reason to feel even happier than he was Wednesday after that news conference he co-starred in with the moth.
Monfils would've played the ninth-ranked Roddick next in the third round had Roddick not extended his lousy summer by losing to 44th seed Janko Tipsarevic, a Serbian who's a dead ringer for U2 lead singer Bono. Same stringy combed-back hair, same tinted wraparound shades.
Roddick will be missed by the New York crowds. But the unexpected Monfils-Tipsarevic showdown should be one of the more colorful and entertaining matches on Saturday's schedule -- Monfils, who's still trying to make his first career Slam final, playing off Tipsarevic, who's emotional, risk-taking and doggedly determined himself.
If the 19th-ranked Monfils is able to keep rolling, he could become one of the snowballing storylines of the men's tournament. Mardy Fish, Novak Djokovic and James Blake will all have already battled each other out in the bottom half of their bracket before Monfils would have to face one of them in the quarterfinal round. A win there, and Monfils could be looking at a semifinal showdown against Roger Federer, a sometime practice partner, and anything could happen then. Federer is a five-time champion here. But he's also had an up-and-down year.
Now admittedly, that's a lot of ifs. In fact, "If only" could be Monfils nickname.
If only he wouldn't bang up his body by diving, sliding and throwing himself around the court the way he does, perhaps he'd have won more than two tour titles by now.
If only Monfils' concentration, strength and ability to control his nerves were better.
If only Monfils didn't feel it was some enormous betrayal of his nature to keep improving his strategic game now that he's working with Roger Rasheed, Lleyton Hewitt's no-nonsense former coach.
Rasheed -- whom Monfils calls "a great man" -- says Monfils has made admirable progress on all those fronts.
And yet, even seven months into working with Rasheed, Monfils had this rather amazing exchange with reporters last year in Key Biscayne, Fla., after eking by Marat Safin 7-5, 7-5.
Q: "It seemed like you were just taking pace off the ball until he made a mistake. ... Was that your strategy a lot?
Monfils: "Zero strategy. Nothing. My mind was empty."
Q: "What do you mean?"
Monfils: "I mean just pushing the ball back and see what happened."
Q: "Do you feel like you can get to the top doing that kind of game?"
Monfils: "No. It wasn't a good match for me today. I played very bad."
Was Monfils just kidding? Was he serious? It's often hard to tell. He speaks of his level of play sometimes depending on how much "elation" he's feeling, or the "wings" that adoring crowds give him when they shower him with applause. When Monfils hired Rasheed after a career-best run to the French Open semis in '08, he spoke of re-committing himself to his career. But he doesn't deny that answering Rasheed's frequent admonition to him -- would you rather hit a colorful shot or win? -- is a constant tug-of-war.
Monfils believes he can do both. "The slides, the spins, the dives -- they just happen," he insists.
Monfils is not the first French player devoted to playing with style. Anyone who remembers Yannick Noah, one of Monfils' inspirations as a boy growing up in the Paris suburb of Bobigny, or Henri Leconte, who still amusing crowds in the Senior draw play at the U.S. Open with his grab bag of trick shots and schticks, knows tennis showmanship is a Gallic tradition. It dates to Suzanne Lenglen and Rene Lacoste.
Monfils arrived in New York insisting he is driven to win a Slam someday. He says, "I believe I will."
Still you always get the sense if it ever happens, it may have to be on his terms. Might as well like Monfils for who he is. Enjoy him while you can.
"If I take away the trick shots, the passion," Monfils says with another shrug and smile, "I'm no longer me."
His side of U.S. Open draw is wide open; can Gael Monfils ratchet up his intensity?