There are some things about tennis that you can only learn when you’ve watched the sport through all of its highs and lows. “You have to be prepared for anything,” a casual fan might be told, as he or she settles in to watch a Gael Monfils match. But only when they’ve watched a few dozen matches of the Frenchman do they realize what ‘anything’ truly means.
There are bazooka forehands that cross the 110 mph barrier, but also loopy moonballs that wouldn’t look out of place on a toddler’s court. There are powerful first serves that save break points, but also half-hearted second serves that somehow land a foot wide. There are unreal drop shots that drive the opponent crazy, but also sitter overheads that limp into the bottom of the net. There are electrifying, warp-speed points that end in seconds, but also sleep-inducing, slow-motion rallies that last an eternity.
But it’s not just with his tennis that Monfils covers the entire gamut of possibilities. His demeanor and intensity can also fluctuate wildly between extremes; one moment he is playing with fierce determination and looking like he’d rather die than lose a point, the next moment he’s playing with disdainful indifference and looking like he’d rather be anywhere but on the court.
Stan Wawrinka had to face literally all of those things in the Rotterdam final on Sunday. In the first set, he had to face the supremely consistent Monfils who got even the hardest of shots back in play. In the second set, he had to deal with a passive Monfils who was not only playing ‘pushy’ tennis, but was also gifting errors through what looked like either crippling exhaustion or mind-numbing boredom.
By the start of the third set, only one player looked likely to win the match. Wawrinka’s timing was off throughout the match but he was still in firm control, against an opponent who was rapidly disintegrating. But just as everyone started nodding off, lulled into waiting for the inevitable Wawrinka victory, Monfils sprang back to life. He started making impossible digs again, and the Swiss promptly obliged with a couple of surprised errors.
That was all the invitation Monfils needed. He got the crucial break seemingly out of nowhere, and from that point on everything changed yet again. The Frenchman suddenly turned into an aggressive, all-court magician; he was now serving and volleying, hitting deft slices and drop shots that tugged Wawrinka all over the court, powering forehand winners into the corners, and in general looking like a player who could do whatever he wanted.
It was no surprise that those five games when Monfils was fully engaged – from 2-1 to 6-2 – made for the most entertaining phase of the match. The points towards the end traversed every square inch of the court, with both men zig-zagging and lunging in their bid to somehow put the ball out of reach of the other.
It was also not surprising that Monfils – easily one of the most phenomenal athletes the sport has ever seen – proved to be the fitter man in the end. He ran off four of the last five games, and capped a brilliant week with his now-customary ‘Wakanda Forever’ salute.
On the surface, this might sound like a typical Monfils win, made up of many different fragments – some of his own doing, and some not in his control. But that second set stands out for its bizarreness: why did Monfils’ tennis randomly get robbed of all intent and purpose?
If you’ve followed the Frenchman’s career over the years, you’d know that this is not the first time he has threatened to tank a match before miraculously regaining his strength after a set or two. The most (in)famous such instance came in the 2016 US Open semi-final against Novak Djokovic, where Monfils’ apparent disinterest during the first two sets bordered on the obscene.
After losing that match, Monfils insisted that his sub-par play was actually a tactical decision. “No, at the beginning I think, you know, Novak was playing good. I didn’t serve great, you know. It was very quick 5-0. I get to change a little bit, you know. I get to change. So yeah, definitely I try to get in his head. You know, try to create something new for him, you know, to see,” he said in his press conference.
You can’t deny that his ‘strategy’, strange as it sounds, did work – both in 2016, and on Sunday in Rotterdam. Back in New York Djokovic went on to drop a set as the match lost all sense of urgency. And in Rotterdam, Wawrinka briefly took his eye off the ball, presumably because he assumed Monfils was done, which cost him the crucial break in the third set.
The question does need to be asked though: why did Monfils have to resort to strategic tanking against Wawrinka, considering he had won the first set and was on course for victory anyway? It wasn’t like the Djokovic match, where he was staring at a 0-5 deficit and looking woefully short of ideas to arrest the slide.
Maybe the manner in which Wawrinka set up two break points at the start of the second set was what pulled the trigger in Monfils’ mind.
At 15-15 in the first game of that set, Wawrinka unleashed a monstrous inside-in forehand winner that Monfils had no chance of reaching. The very next point, Wawrinka hit almost the exact same shot again, with the exact same result. Monfils had done nothing wrong, and yet he was still staring at two break points.
Did those two Wawrinka winners scare Monfils into playing possum? According to the man himself, it was more about anger than fear. “I felt he was playing heavy in the second set and I felt like I couldn’t handle it,” he said after the match. “I had to break his momentum….I felt like I was pushing back physically and not striking cleanly. I was stressed and angry, but I had to think about it. And in the third game of the decider, I took my chance and gained energy.”
Notice how Monfils talks about gaining energy as though it is something that you can just switch on and off at will. And consider too that when you deliberately slow down in the hope that it breaks your opponent’s momentum, you are completely giving up control of the proceedings.
What if Wawrinka hadn’t let his focus slip in the third set? What if Monfils hadn’t got the all-important break that helped him ‘gain energy’? We know what the (familiar) headline would have been in that case: ‘Monfils loses another final, after squandering a healthy lead yet again’.
But the fact is that Wawrinka did slip up, and Monfils now has one of the biggest titles of his career. You can’t argue against results, even if they come about through seemingly counterintuitive methods.
When I first started following Monfils’ career, I found myself being constantly perplexed by his antics; it was hard to fathom the crazy twists and turns that littered every match he played. A decade down the line I know not to be surprised anymore, but I still don’t quite know how to react to his tennis. Should I applaud his out-of-the-box thinking? Should I criticize his inability to stick to the program? Or should I just suspend all disbelief and go along for the ride, free of any bias or opinion?
Maybe that’s the whole point of the Monfils experience; you’re not supposed to know what to make of it. You just take it as it comes, and decide how to react based on the end result – which in this case is an ATP 500 trophy.
A Wakanda salute is in order.
Updated Date: Feb 18, 2019 09:45:54 IST