By Giri Nathan
This week there was so much good Stan Wawrinka and Gael Monfils in the monitors that it felt like 2016. It is no secret that these guys, aged 38 and 36, respectively, are in the codas of their careers; commentators cannot so much as look at them without blurting out the word “retire.” They are some of the most gifted players of their fading generation, and while they had the misfortune of being born in the proximity of the Big Three, they each leave their own distinctive mark on the game. Monfils, in particular, will go down as the premier entertainer of his time, a swirl of charm and audacity, who had every tennis skill there is to have, to the absolute highest degree, for at least one rapturous moment in his career. He was responsible for a disproportionate number of the best shots I’ve seen, and he only added to that heap of highlights with his unexpectedly great play this month.
Monfils ended his 2022 season early with foot surgery. His return to competition this spring was inauspicious. Heading into August, the Frenchman hadn’t managed to win two matches in a row. The only bright spot of his year was a dreamlike first-round win at Roland-Garros, where he sent chills into the home crowd by coming back down 0–4 in the fifth, though even then, he withdrew from the tournament with injury right after. It wasn’t the type of season that would make a player want to defer a hard-earned funemployment. It felt more like a farewell tour. Though that might have changed during this month’s hard-court swing. If you watched him in Washington, Toronto, or Cincinnati, you would not have guessed that this was a man ranked outside the top 200, playing out the string. Monfils took out a slew of top 30 players, all about a decade his junior: Alexander Bublik, Chris Eubanks, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Cam Norrie, Alex de Minaur. He tested eventual Toronto champ Jannik Sinner in three sets. After these results, the feeling was different. Monfils might still choose to retire, but these kids weren’t retiring him by force.
True to form, he did all that in style. Everything you might want from La Monf was here somewhere. He has long made an art form of sliding on hard court, lunging into contortionist poses and skidding through the court, his sneakers squeaking in protest. You might hear them squeak five times in an impossible sequence of gets, as they did against Bublik in D.C.; in Toronto, Eubanks struck four would-be winners, but Monfils squeaked them all back. The Monfils defense speaks to a heady mix of talents: the reaction time to track down these shots, the mobility to sink into these terrifying splits, the balance to recover from them, the touch to do something dangerous with every ball. Age has brought injury, but it hasn’t dulled these skills; even at 36, his top speed is right up there with anyone else.
I have always felt that Gael Monfils plays tennis the way we do in our heads. Fittingly, another trademark of his is delightful and superfluous leaping. Leaping into a concussive forehand as he did against Tsitsipas in Toronto—why not? And if he must stay grounded, he can just slap that forehand 117 mph. And the hand skills and improvisation should not escape your notice either. In Cincinnati, he just snapped his wrist and batted back an Alex de Minaur overhead smash as casually as if he were swatting a fly. Throughout his career, it occasionally seemed as if Monfils played too passively, letting points drag on too long. But in this recent run, he seemed to be deploying all his tricks with more intent, sparing his legs the unnecessary mileage.
Monfils rewrote his season, and possibly his future, by winning seven matches in the past three weeks. The fun ended the way most fun tends to end: in a straightforward loss to Novak Djokovic. Some history was made with Djokovic’s 6–3, 6–2 win in Cincinnati on Thursday. He now has a 19–0 record against Monfils, the largest undefeated head-to-head record in ATP history. Monfils has previously said he wanted to play until 40, though he has walked that back since having a daughter. Should he stick around, he still won’t get that elusive Djokovic win. But he will surely do what he has always done: show us a shot that no one else has ever hit, a startling new thing that tennis can be.
Above: Vintage Monfils, Melbourne 2017. (Getty)