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Gael Monfils interview: Roland Garros, showmanship, Svitolina and Skai

Written by on May 29, 2024

In 2004, the four boys’ Grand Slam titles were split between two 17-year-olds.

Three went to the one considered the most talented, the final one to probably the next best player — who, even then, was not prepared to accept being second-best.

The first went on to have a very good career: a regular in the world’s top 20, peaking at No 6, with two Grand Slam semi-finals. The second player, the inferior junior, had an outstanding career: three major titles, two Olympic golds, a Davis Cup win, the world No 1 ranking. He did it by maximising every last drop of his talent, while the other player was seen as not quite realising his potential.

Twenty years on from those junior triumphs, both are nearing the end of their careers. The more successful player is eight months younger but closer to retirement — seven years battling injury have pushed his body to its absolute outer limits.

The other player is enjoying a late renaissance, having battled injuries of his own for a couple of years, but now ranked 37 at age 37, the oldest player inside the world’s top 50. Loved for his showmanship and shotmaking ability, he is also one of the biggest draws for crowds wherever he goes — especially at Roland Garros, in his home city of Paris.

For a few hours on Monday night, Gael Monfils again delighted Court Philippe-Chatrier in the prime night session slot. It wasn’t just that he beat Brazilian 24-year-old Thiago Seyboth Wild in four sets, it was also the way he did it, a cavalcade of running forehand passing shots, jumping backhand volleys, and interactions with the crowd.

Twenty-four hours earlier, his erstwhile junior rival — Andy Murray — entered the same court to face Stan Wawrinka. Murray, back from his latest battle with injury, competed gamely for a couple of sets but succumbed 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. It’s expected to be his last French Open.

Monfils playing against Murray during the first round of Roland Garros in 2006 (Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images)

For a long time, Murray could be used as a stick to beat Monfils with; the contemporary who showed what could be done with extra application. Over time, though, that comparison has become facile. The idea that Monfils doesn’t properly apply himself is fatuous — he’s got 12 titles of his own — and their divergent careers stand on their own terms.

Murray, defined by dedication levels that would make most mere mortals wince, managed to infiltrate the top of men’s tennis at its contemporary peak and stay there. Monfils, without the promised major titles, is still one of the most popular players on the tour, packing out stadiums across the world. No wonder, when he does things like this…

Monfils certainly has no regrets.

“Impossible,” he said to The Athletic in a conversation on the eve of the tournament.

“So many people forget where I’m from, who I am. No one knows me. Who I am now, I couldn’t even predict this for a second. I’m one of the luckiest people to have made it. This career, I never expected it. My mum’s a nurse — working night shifts to try to help me play tennis. My dad worked in telecoms back then because he was a soccer player but had to stop quite early.

“Living in not the best area of Paris, I had this dream. And now here I am, talking to you. You know my name. It’s impossible. I made it.”

Back when Monfils was the all-conquering junior, Murray was asked at Wimbledon in 2004 whether the Frenchman was the boys’ equivalent of Roger Federer.

“No, I don’t think so,” a 17-year-old Murray said, with a soon-to-become customary contrarianism.

“He’s done really well, winning in Australia and the French. But last week, I had a tight match with him, and he struggled through his match today. I beat him last year at the French Open 6-4, 6-1. So he is beatable.”

Monfils won that year’s junior Wimbledon, but Murray got on the board by winning the U.S. Open. Monfils’ hopes of becoming only the second player — after Stefan Edberg in 1983 — to complete a calendar boys’ Grand Slam ended in the third round at Flushing Meadows.

Monfils after winning junior Wimbledon against Britain’s Miles Kasiri (Phil Cole/Getty Images)

This might all feel like ancient history now, but the pair go even further back. “It’s crazy because I played Andy the first time when I was 11 and he was 10,” Monfils recalls.

Monfils made the jump into the pro circuit before Murray and reached the second round of the 2005 Australian Open. Both he and Murray made the third round of that year’s Wimbledon, and Monfils was named the ATP newcomer of the year at the end of the season.

The pair’s paths crossed again the following year, when they met in the first round of the French Open. Monfils won in five sets, avenging a win for Murray in their first meeting on the pro tour, in Hamburg.

Surprisingly, the pair have only met six times on the main tour, Murray leading the head-to-head 4-2. Their most recent meeting at that level was a decade ago, as close to their dominant junior days as now. The match, a French Open quarter-final, could be seen as the early part of their careers in microcosm, with Murray toughing it out to win in five sets.

Before that match, Murray said: “He’s a great athlete — maybe the best we have had in tennis. Of the Grand Slams, he’s played his best tennis here by far. He loves playing in front of a big crowd. Gael has always been a great entertainer and he’s great for the sport.”

Murray was, by this point, a two-time Grand Slam champion, and Monfils hadn’t been to the semis of a major since the French Open in 2008. Monfils did reach another semi-final, at the U.S. Open in 2016, but Novak Djokovic beat him in a bizarre match defined by the Serb ripping his shirt open, a topsy-turvy scoreline, and heat and humidity so intense that it appeared to addle both players.

That’s still the furthest Monfils has gone at a Grand Slam, but in the eight years since, he has reached two major quarter-finals (one at the 2022 Australian Open, aged 35) and has won six more titles to double his career total. None has come at Masters (1000) level.

Murray has 14 of those, on top of all his other significant successes.

Monfils and Murray after that Roland Garros quarter-final (Kenzo Triboillaurd/AFP via Getty Images)

“Everybody’s different,” Monfils says of his one-time junior rival. “We have a different purpose. I’m a big fan of Andy. His achievements, his career, the guy he is. He is a really respectful guy and a cool dude. A legend of the sport.

“I never judge anyone else, everyone thinks differently. I try to learn from him and what he’s done is crazy good. I’m trying on my own to not make similar decisions, but to do decisions that are best for me.”

Monfils also rejects the notion that his talent meant he didn’t work hard or could have applied himself more. “(People say) ‘Ah, Monfils is not disciplined’,” he told the Guardian this month. “Guys, don’t think this because I’m enjoying myself on the court. The work I do outside is big.”

Watching Monfils in front of his home crowd remains one of tennis’s most enjoyable experiences. There’s a symbiosis in how they feed off the other’s energy.

On Monday night, it didn’t take long for the Chatrier court to start to crackle. The brass band was already in full swing when, in the seventh game, Monfils somehow chased down a volley and flicked away a forehand passing shot winner. He asked the crowd to make some more noise — they duly obliged. It was a spectacular ending to a rally that showcased Monfils’ supreme defensive and shot-making skills. The way he was moving, it felt hard to believe that he had been forced to pull out of Geneva with illness last week and had been on antibiotics.

At the start of the second set, a drop volley on the way to an early break had his main cheerleaders singing: “Allez allez Gael” to the tune of ‘Everybody Dance Now’.

But he ended up losing that set in a tame flurry of errors, being broken to love in a demonstration of the fallibility of concentration that has probably prevented him from reaching the very top of the game.

Even during that set, there was a jumping backhand volley and a beautifully disguised drop shot; both had the crowd on their feet.

“I love you, Gael!” roared one supporter. “Me too!” called out another.

A brilliant backhand pass helped Monfils break back in the third set having fallen behind, and a Mexican wave soon followed. Monfils won the third set, and took the fourth too — sealing it in a satisfyingly on-brand way: ace, ace, botched smash, ace, winner. The final shot was a typically graceful flying smash — a version of the ‘slam dunk’ Pete Sampras used to do.

Monfils roared in delight, performed a short dance, thumped his chest and performed his trademark Black Panther celebration to all four sides of the court. The victory made him the French men’s player with the most Grand Slam match wins, 122, ahead of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

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