Why Showman Gael Monfils Must Add Substance To The Style


For sheer athleticism, exuberance and joy, Frenchman Gael Monfils is by far the most exciting player to watch in professional tennis.

Who can't delight in this 28-year-old's acrobatic twisting, turning, leaping and sliding; his 360-degree spinning smashes; his flights parallel to the ground as he lunges for a volley; the way he splays all four of his limbs when stretching for a wide shot – like a thirsty giraffe at the watering-hole. (If that isn't enough, check out his moves on the dance floor.)

And now he's into the quarter-finals at the US Open. He plays Roger Federer tonight.

Yet mere athleticism isn't going to get him past the mighty Swiss mister. He can play all the trick shots in his arsenal, plus some crazier ones not invented yet, and Federer will just soak them up and send them back even trickier.

No, if Monfils wants to progress to the semi-finals (He's been in a Grand Slam semi just once before – at the 2008 French Open where he lost to Federer), he's going to have to rein in the flashy stuff and crank up the no-nonsense winning stuff. 

That's his problem in a nutshell. Ever the showman (or show-off, some would argue), he values style over substance. Winning matches isn't as important to him as winning fans; and the way he wins fans is by messing with the physical laws of ballistics. Every day on the men's tour we see thundering serves and blistering ground strokes. What we don't see – and therefore appreciate much more – is leaping volleys, spinning smashes, and between-the-legs wonder shots. It's the tennis equivalent of a performing seal at the circus.

So when will Monfils stop clapping his flippers and balancing beach balls on his nose? 

His former coach, Roger Rasheed, remembers how he tried to tame the flashy performer inside Monfils. 

“I saw a player with legitimate weapons and a lot of raw talent who hadn't blossomed yet," he once said. "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. Look, you've got 4,000 tricks and I'm taking away 3,000. Have your flair, but if you're too loose, your game will break down. People remember players who win, not how many times the crowd goes 'Wow!'"

The crowd at this year’s US Open has been going ‘Wow!’ quite a lot. But whether fans will ever go ‘Wow!’ all the way through to a Monfils Grand Slam victory remains to be seen.

Right now the Frenchman has no coach – and that’s not going to help him at all. The performing seal needs a circus tamer.

Monfils is 4.10 to beat Federer, with Federer at 1.24