A frequent complaint about Gael Monfils is that you either see too much of him, or too little. When he enters a tournament, the highlight reels are almost invariably flooded with La Monf Specials; there’s no player more suited for a ‘Hot Shots’ package than the Frenchman. But Monfils also tends to disappear from our TV screens just as quickly as he takes over them; over the course of his career he has made it a habit of exiting tournaments way earlier than he should, leaving everyone futilely asking for more.
That lack of visibility often extends to his actual on-court play too. Despite possessing enviable firepower, Monfils usually prefers to plant himself well behind the baseline and defend from pillar to post. He stands so far back that he sometimes looks like nothing more than a speck on the horizon, and you wonder how such a strategy could work anywhere but on clay.
Initially, it didn’t. Monfils’ first title, back in 2005, came on the claycourts of Poland, and his first Slam breakthrough was at Roland Garros in 2008. But since then, his results have gone in a completely different direction. Monfils has won 10 titles in his career, and seven of those have come on a surface that is almost diametrically opposite to clay: indoor hard.
The latest of those 10 came on Sunday at the Rotterdam Open, just one week after his title win in Montpellier (also on indoor hardcourt). By beating Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-2, 6-4 in the Rotterdam final, Monfils, who was crowned champion in 2019, has defended a title for the first time in his career. This is also the first time he has bagged two titles in a year, and needless to say, the first time he’s triumphed in two consecutive weeks.
And to think that all of these breakthroughs are coming on a surface that is supposed to reward aggressive, on-the-rise play – which the Monfils Template is totally incompatible with.
Indoor conditions are bereft of the unpredictable elements like heat, wind and humidity, so players who stand up in the court and go for their shots tend to fare better in them. A passive style like Monfils’ is traditionally, not supposed to work indoors, and yet the Frenchman has managed to win 70% of his titles there. How does he do it?
His foot speed is certainly a big factor. Monfils has always been among the quickest players on tour, and in indoor conditions that advantage is enhanced even further. He can get to balls that most players can’t, and by doing so he extends rallies beyond the length that his opponents are comfortable with.
Against Auger-Aliassime, Monfils spent a vast majority of the match doing nothing but retrieving his opponent’s pacy forehands, until the Canadian eventually missed. It was a strategy that brought Monfils’ strength to the fore and at the same time exploited Auger-Aliassime’s weakness. The 33-year-old never stops running and the teenager never stops going for big groundstrokes, so things played right into Monfils’ hands.
“It was a passive match from me,” Monfils surprisingly admitted later. “I chose to be in defence quite a lot… I knew, physically, it would be tough for him to come through me. I was doing this great… At the end, I was very pleased with my service.”
Monfils' tendency to go for glory shots from defensive positions is also something that is less likely to result in disaster on a quick indoor surface. Monfils can generate tremendous power even from well behind the baseline, and if there’s no wind to make the ball deviate from its path, that is often a safe bet for a clean winner.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) February 16, 2020
The one he hit off his forehand in the last game of the match was as good an example of that as any. Auger-Aliassime had clawed his way back from two breaks down to get to 4-5, and Monfils was under pressure to serve it out at the second time of asking. So when the Canadian hit a loopy return at 15-15 that pushed Monfils way back, most expected him to angle the ball safely back into the court. But instead, the Frenchman ran around his backhand and took an almighty swing on his forehand, blasting an inch-perfect inside-in winner that took the wind right out of Auger-Aliassime’s sails.
Does the time of the year also help Monfils, aside from the technical luxuries that indoor tennis affords his game? Monfils has now reached as many as 11 finals in January and February combined, and four of his last five finals have come in this early part of the season. Maintaining his focus and motivation has always been a struggle for the Frenchman, so it is possible that he finds it easier to play well when the season is fresh and the disappointments of losses haven’t started piling up yet. It helps too, of course, that the Big three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are often absent in February, making the path just that little bit easier for the next tier of players.
But the Frenchman is not content with winning a 500 tournament, as significant an accomplishment as that may be for someone of his age and position in the sport. “[I would like] to reach the final at another Masters 1000, why not try to win one and keep the dream alive,” he said at the trophy presentation. “The dream is to win a Grand Slam, and that is what I am playing for and training for.”
Monfils’ vanquished opponent standing right behind has also been training for winning Slams; how could he not, give the incredibly high expectations placed on him since his junior days? When Auger-Aliassime started going deep in tournaments last year, the coronation seemed just like a matter of time. The completeness of his game at such a young age, the easy power in every shot, the absence of any glaring weakness: the Canadian was considered as close to a sure thing as any youngster we’ve come across in the last decade.
And yet he has lost all of his four finals so far, failing to win even a set in any of them. Is it stage fright that’s holding him back?
Against Monfils in Rotterdam, Auger-Aliassime looked like a completely different player from the one that had beaten Grigor Dimitrov in the quarters and Pablo Carreno Busta in the semis. His forehand was the biggest culprit; while he blasted 17 winners off it, he also coughed up a gargantuan 21 unforced errors, putting himself in one hole after another.
Auger-Aliassime’s forehand has been a problem for a while now, especially in the crunch moments. When put under pressure he tends to add more topspin than usual in order to be able to swing hard enough, but that only makes him send it long or wide. The Auger-Aliassime forehand is one of the most remarkable weapons in the sport, but right now it is betraying him when he needs it the most.
If the Canadian had played against Monfils the way he had in his previous two matches, he likely would’ve been able to win a set – or at least push the Frenchman out of his comfort zone long enough to make the match more competitive. But that was not to be. Through his first four matches of the tournament Auger-Aliassime was all about discipline, courage, composure and jaw-dropping athleticism; in his last match, he was all about impatience and loose errors.
He’s still just 19, so it is possible that with time he will learn how to manage the nerves of a final better. But his tendency to play his worst tennis in the biggest moments is not a good sign, and something that he needs to work on urgently.
A talent like Auger-Aliassime is extremely rare even in a sport filled with prodigies. However, in the immediate future we’ll likely be seeing more of his conqueror, who has seemingly caught a second wind in his 30s.
The complaint with Monfils has always been that we either see too much of him, or too little. But now he is playing consistently good tennis for weeks on end, while also throwing in his usual acrobatic flair to keep the highlight reels churning.
For what feels like the first time ever, we are seeing just the right amount of Gael Monfils.
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Updated Date: Feb 17, 2020 10:10:13 IST