We reserve a special place for the stars that never achieved what they should’ve due to injuries. Stich, Rios, Mecir and Norman are just a few of the what could have been crew. There’s a second group that draws more consternation. Players that had the requisite talent but not the mental quotient that separates the good from the best.
Gael Monfils is on course to become a member of both groups.
There is no shortage of exceptional shot making in today’s game – shots that make you question what you just saw, question how it was even possible.
Along with that we have the power and bravado that make us marvel at an individuals refusal to capitulate. Rafa Nadal’s rise to superstardom was not the product of excellent shot making but rather his will to beat his opponent by any means possible. Those who came after tried to mimic this style – this mindset, perhaps more apt.
Gael Monfils combined the two. His incredible movement allowed him to get to balls others would not challenge, sliding on hardcourts with little care for the longevity of his joints. Forehands off his back foot, way behind the baseline, that zipped down the line with malice.
The fact that he could do it all was not a surprise.
Monfils’ rise through the junior ranks was well documented. A three-time junior grand slam winner in 2004, the lanky kid from Bobigny’s play indicated he would be a threat in the professional game.
2005 saw him defeat then top 10 ranked Gaston Gaudio in Doha. He followed that up with tight losses to Federer and Nadal in Doha and Rome respectively the following year. The sky – pardon the horrible cliché – was the limit.
What made this even better was the way Monfils played the game. Tennis has seen its fair share of characters. And while Jimmy Connors was the patriarch of the in-your-face-I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude, he would never be mistaken for a world-class athlete. Monfils was, hitting an insane winner and yucking it up for the crowd, sending our insular cortex into frenzy.
Unfortunately this frenetic style of play had its drawbacks. In 2007 Monfils pulled out of the U.S Open due to a hamstring injury – an ailment that held him out of the 2008 Australian Open as well. A tough, but promising loss to Federer in the ‘08 French Open semi-final was followed up by injuries that forced him out of the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2009, this time a wrist problem the culprit.
Through it all he made it to number seven in the world. A memorable fourth round tussle with Nadal at the ‘09 U.S Open provided solace in defeat. He wasn’t that far away.
The breakthrough didn’t come. Two Grand Slam QF appearances in the following two years were the highpoints. Gael missed three Slams in 2012. After a brief return in Metz this September, he called it quits on the year – right knee pain, again.
By now we’ve heard all the conjecture. French paper L’Équipe claims Monfils has been unreachable for several days. His former coach — Patrick Chamagne – claims “he is hiding but I would not be surprised if it was a return to hell,” adding Monfils is tired of the rumours surrounding his fledgling career. His agent says Gael has already purchased his ticket for Australia while French legend Henri Leconte claims Monfils ‘is completely lost.’
It’s a cruel game. Like Robin Soderling, Monfils’ future playing the sport he loves is not up to him, but rather a body that no longer functions with consistency.
Selfishly, I hope this isn’t the end. There have been few players I’ve enjoyed watching more – histrionics and all. For the Grosjean’s and Stepanek’s of the sport, there are many more who do not leave professional tennis on their own accord. With that said, if Monfils is mentally spent I have no qualms with his departure from the game. I don’t know what it’s been like to focus on one thing, in obsessive manner, for so long.
In any case the message remains the same. Get well soon.