"I'm more of an artist"
With all his athletic gifts, Gael Monfils should be flipping tennis on its head.
This article appears in the July 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The cycle is starting again. Gael Monfils has pulled out of another tournament with an injury. He'd flown to Miami with hopes his left hand would feel strong enough to play the Sony Ericsson Open. But the pain is too great to ignore. So at 10:30 on a late-March morning, while word of his withdrawal makes the rounds of players and fans, and while his agent schedules an MRI and a flight to Paris, Monfils is sitting in a café on the 25th floor of the Conrad hotel, narrating the evolution of his game while watching YouTube clips of himself in action.
A laptop perched on his knees, Monfils (MON-feece) smiles after clicking "360 Degree Rotation Smash." Dressed in a white windbreaker, shorts and T-shirt, he says, "This is my favorite." In the clip, he launches high into the air, spins and unloads on a lob with a crushing overhead. "One time I need to show it in a match. For me, it's fun."
This season, the Tour has been anything but fun for the 23-year-old French star-in-waiting. After ascending to No. 9 in the world last spring, he's fallen to No. 17, his recent string of frustrating finishes punctuated by a second-round loss at the French to No. 92 Fabio Fognini, then a third-round, straight-sets Wimbledon meltdown against No. 26 Lleyton Hewitt (Monfils double-faulted on match point). In January, he was bumped in the third round of the Aussie by No. 28 John Isner. Injuries, meanwhile, have forced him out of five events.
Upon learning that Monfils had pulled out of the Sony Ericsson, Roger Federer expressed the feeling of many of the Tour's top players: "I always think it's disappointing when he's injured. Gael is fun to watch but also fun to play against; not just because you win or lose, but because it's exciting."
With increasing frequency, Monfils' performances haven't met the expectations of opponents or fans. Once a rising star whom no player wanted in his half of the draw, Monfils, thanks in part to his approach to the game, has lately played steppingstone for others on the climb.
And that's a shame. Fans and foes love his leave-it-all-on-the-court style of play. But his game also holds him back; his body is simply unable to handle the pounding. Over the past three years, he's suffered injuries to his back, right shoulder, left wrist and, most naggingly, left knee. "His potential is unbelievable," says Rafael Nadal. "But similar to me, when you play very aggressive with that flexibility you have more chances to get injured." Adds Andy Murray: "Gael's athleticism is incredible. He can jump high, hit incredibly hard and do pretty much anything. He's very, very talented. But you need to be playing if you want to improve in the rankings."
And so Monfils has arrived at a crucial point in his career: Since 1990, only nine men have won their first Grand Slam on the dark side of their 24th birthday. Unless he turns his game soon, Monfils could end up as another Tour journeyman who spent his career chasing potential.
Not that the journey won't be interesting. Monfils is so magnetic that even listening to him describe his greatest hits is entertaining. And in six years as a pro, Monfils has developed a devoted, multiculti base of fans drawn to his lively personality and knack for brilliant shots. At the 2008 French Open, where he reached the semifinals before falling to Federer, Monfils rocked the Roland Garros crowd with Soulja Boy's "Superman" dance after wins. Sporting an auburn Afro and the nickname Sliderman, Monfils can steal a better-known opponent's crowd advantage with spellbinding moves toward seemingly impossible returns, the kind that pull soulful ooohs of appreciation from the stands. He worked his magic against Nadal at last year's U.S. Open with several miraculous gets in a 30-stroke rally, which he won with a sliding, whip forehand down the line. The effect: Think Jimi Hendrix playing guitar with his teeth. "Monfils is a special player, a different player, a spectacular player," says Nadal. "He is very good for tennis."
But spectacular comes with a physical cost. Monfils' lean, muscular, 6'4'' physique is built for power and agility, not sliding. "He is like a race car," says one French journalist. "Strong, but fragile." His coach of two years, Roger Rasheed, has pushed Monfils to fortify his build. "He's a bit loose in his joints," Rasheed says. "There's a hardening of the muscles and frame that he's doing now, legitimate gym work that a boxer would do. He needs a hard body to give a base and more control."
Most tennis players slide on clay courts, to stop, set up for a return or change direction. But Monfils has mastered the technique on hard courts. The screech of his shoes when he slides on concrete can sound like fingernails on a chalkboard, but he swears the move is painless. Either way, a Monfils slide is a marvel of mechanics, not unlike the windup of 5'11'', 170-pound Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, which produces 101 mph rockets. "Monfils has very good flexibility and timing," says Rafael Bahamonde, a professor of human performance and biomechanics at Indiana University. "Not creating much friction allows him to slide on hard courts. But getting into that position and back out very quickly can put tremendous stress on the ankle, knee and hip joints. Is it worth the gamble when the odds of getting a point from that position are pretty slim?" It's the kind of question all sorts of elite athletes face. Consider Cowboys running back Marion Barber. He's a power runner whose instinct for plowing into defenders helps explain why he's not in the 1,000-yard club. "We're always talking about being smart and choosing when to step out of bounds to avoid taking unnecessary punishment," says Dallas running backs coach Skip Peete.
Despite the strain that sliding puts on Monfils' body, he has no intention of giving up his signature move. "People say, 'You slide too much,'" Monfils says, affecting an offended air. "I try to change a bit, just to see the difference, and it's very bad. The faster and easier thing is to slide. To me, it's a gift, it's natural. It may be different, but I'm me. I'm more of an artist. I create because I don't want to lose, and the ball is dead only on the second bounce."
And this is what makes Monfils one of the most extraordinary -- and maddening -- players in tennis. He's mercurial to a fault, willing to pound his body in victory or defeat. One senses in both his play and attitude that he's embracing something he should be fighting, and fighting something he needs to embrace.
This rebelliousness, for lack of a better word, may stem from his formative years as a player. A native Parisian, Monfils was introduced to tennis at age 2 by his parents, who played on weekends. His dad, Rufin, is from Guadeloupe; mother Sylvette hails from Martinique. Father coached son until Gael, at 13, earned a scholarship to a Russian tennis center. He returned to Paris a year later and joined the French Tennis Federation, where he trained and competed with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon -- together they were dubbed the "New Musketeers" by the French media. With legendary French showman Yannick Noah as a lodestar, Monfils resisted efforts to change his game, and his success as a junior (Australian, French and Wimbledon titles; a No. 1 ranking) encouraged him to rely on instinct at the expense of technique and fundamentals. After he turned pro in 2004, however, he struggled, no longer able to win with power and flashy shots. Although he often had more physical talent than an opponent, he lost matches because opponents out-thought him. Heading into the 2008 French, Monfils was ranked No. 32 and had never advanced past the Round of 16 at a Slam. But after his impressive run to the semis at Roland Garros, he decided to adjust his game. He sought Rasheed's help in July 2008.
"I saw a player with legitimate weapons and a lot of raw talent who hadn't blossomed yet," Rasheed says. "I drew a line in the sand and said, If you want to be ranked 40 or 50, you can be creative and artistic. But if you want success at the Grand Slam level, there's a price." Monfils signed on. "Having someone to drive me was good for me," he says. Rasheed, who has the demeanor of a friendly drill sergeant, set out to lock Monfils into a more structured game plan. "I said, 'Look, you've got 4,000 tricks and I'm taking away 3,000,'" he says. "Have your flair, but if you're too loose, your game will break down. Your first goal is a W. People remember players who win, not how many times the crowd goes, 'Wow.'"
The improvement was almost immediate. "All of a sudden, people were actually concerned because Gael Monfils was a bit more switched on," Rasheed says, noting that Monfils jumped to No. 14 by November 2008. "That created locker room presence and on-court presence. He became a threat. Before, it was like, Well, I wonder what we're going to get today."
Although Rasheed does not favor sliding on hard courts, he concedes that selective use of the move allows Monfils to return shots he otherwise might not reach. Coach and player have reached a compromise. "Gael now does that about a fifth as much as he used to," says Rasheed. "When you play all defensive tennis, that's when you're sliding." Rasheed has also pushed Monfils to be more aggressive, to dictate points with his big forehand and volley from inside the baseline. "He's too patient in the points," says Novak Djokovic, who beat Monfils in the Paris final last November. "He needs to go more for his shots. That's where the players take control over him."
The other area where Monfils often cedes control? Upstairs. It's no secret that Monfils flusters easily, causing his game to unravel. "The mental is the key," says Rasheed. "That's the thing he's gonna try and keep under control. He's very youthful with his development as a top tennis player." Monfils knows that tempering his emotions may yield more than harnessing his physical skills. "I need to take more confidence in my weapons, and the difference is that the top guys have a little bit extra," he says. "Sometimes I can be a little bit down. I need to believe a little bit more, and then I will be a top player."
Away from tennis, Monfils seeks out hip-hop mixtapes from deejay friends and knows the best sushi spots at every Tour stop -- downing 30 pieces (California or salmon) per sitting. His reddish-brown 'fro, upon closer inspection, is actually a mix of tightly coiled curls that he twirls absentmindedly while talking. He lives in Nyon, Switzerland, with his Australian girlfriend, Chelsea, and says he's happy to come home from practice, cook and discuss everything but his job. "I love tennis, but the main thing in my life, is life," he says.
That attitude has helped deflect some of the pressure put upon him by his country's rabid thirst for somebody, anybody, to be the first French Grand Slam champ since Noah won Roland Garros in 1983. To do so, he'll have to become more ruthless about his goals, take responsibility, show conviction. He knows players such as Murray and Nadal are ticking every box, doing everything they can to improve their games. "Gael is learning to put that more into his world," says Rasheed. "He doesn't want his peers to say, 'Gael, he was super talented, but ...' He wants to remove the buts."
Does he have the necessary self-discipline? "I think I can change," Monfils says, sitting a little straighter in his seat at the Conrad. "I can get to high-level maturity. But I want to do what I want to do, and I want to be the No. 1. It's my dream to win a Slam. I'm very glad for advice and I will listen carefully. But I take advice from people, and I mix it up. I turn it in my way."
Spoken like a true artist.
Carmen Renee Thompson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.
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