Monday, March 11, 2019 - Gael Monfils plays Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the 3rd round of the BNP Paribas Open in Stadium 2 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Michael Cummo/BNP Paribas Open)
When, in 2004, Gael Monfils won three of four Grand Slam boys’ singles titles — a feat surpassed only by future Hall of Famer Stefan Edberg in 1983 — the tennis world braced itself for the arrival of The Next Great One.
However, while the supremely talented Frenchman has enjoyed an admirable Top-10 existence, amassed more than $15 million in career prize money, and become a big-brand, multimillion-dollar endorsee from Montparnasse to Marseille, that big-title success hasn’t necessarily translated to the pro ranks.
Long one of the ATP Tour’s most popular performers, Monfils has but once reached a Grand Slam semifinal, on the terre battue of Roland Garros more than a decade ago. His high-flying, ‘tweener acrobatics indeed fill seats, but his perceived underachievement has left some flabbergasted.
Commentator Jim Courier, a four-time major titlist and former US Davis Cup captain, recently opined that he would pay a lot of money to see Monfils play, and a lot of money not to have to coach him.
After falling out of the Top 40 last year, the 32-year-old has climbed his way back to No. 19. Monfils appears to be playing with a newfound sense of purpose in 2019. He’s reached semis in both Sofia and Dubai, and pushed aside the likes of David Goffin and Stan Wawrinka last month in capturing the Rotterdam title, only his second at the 500 level.
Where is this sudden surge coming from? Perhaps it’s his romantic alignment with girlfriend Elina Svitolina. The Ukrainian, hell bent on winning, might just be a motivating force for the veteran, who peaked at a career-high No. 6 in 2016.
Svito has had to get used to watching her boyfriend in action from the sidelines, something she says is providing a whole new perspective.
“It’s much, much tougher than being on court because you see things differently,” said Svitolina, the world No. 6. “I’ve learned a lot from those moments that I’m just sitting and watching him. You realize that your coach sees more and you have to listen to them if they say something is off.”
“He’s a very hard worker,” she continued. “We don’t see a lot of the things he does when he’s training. It looks like he’s enjoying it all, but he’s a very different person when he’s away from the court, away from the public eye.”
“I admire what she’s doing, how she works, the mentality she has,” said Monfils of his love interest in Dubai. “It’s incredible. But it’s not for me. She’s too serious for me!”
He sure looks serious in Indian Wells. Making his 11th appearance at the BNP Paribas Open, he’s into the Round of 16 after a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win over Argentine Leonardo Mayer, and a 6-0, 6-3 defeat of Spain’s Albert Ramos-Vinolas. But it doesn’t get any easier from here. Next up is upset specialist Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany. Despite a one-sided 13-2 record in Monfils’ favor, Kohlschreiber comes into the match on a hot streak. All the 35-year-old lefty has done thus far is stun 31st seed Nick Kyrgios and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
Monfils, who recently partnered with a new coach in Liam Smith, is looking to make the most of his opportunity.
“New goals, new team, new routine. Wins under my belt,” observed Monfils. “I’ll just try to keep doing what I’m doing. Every day a little more improvement.”
“With Gaël, I’ve had great matches, great battles,” said Kohlschreiber, whose win over Djokovic was his first over a No. 1. “I think he’s the best athlete we have on tour. It’s always very special to play against him. It’s almost the same as playing Novak. Their defending skills are very, very high. You have to find great rhythm on offensive, don’t overplay it. It’s very important. He’s a big favorite because he beaten me many times. I have nothing to lose.”