Gael Monfils feinted and jabbed and ran a few miles along the baseline on his way to a victory over David Ferrer in the French Open quarterfinals.
Gael Monfils, Gael Monfils, what can you say about the guy? The French tennis federation brought him along, then he jumped ship to the rival Lagardere Group, then he came to the U.S. and signed up to work with Tarik Benhabiles, then he went back to Lagardere. He’s like a kid in a candy store who can’t make up his mind. He leaps and splits and splays those arms and legs all over the court retrieving balls that should be out of reach. He celebrates wins with the moonwalk and the robot and good shots with equally boisterous outbursts of childlike glee, one of which ended up with an awkward landing and a badly sprained ankle and a trip off the court in a wheelchair. There he was a few weeks later looking just as good at an indoor Masters event.
One thing Monfils doesn’t do is play aggressive tennis and retrieving is not a recipe for success against David Ferrer – the human wall – especially in the quarterfinals at the French Open. Right? Monfils’ only consistently aggressive shot is his serve: the beanpole version of Andy Roddick’s power serve with the feet together and everything bending instead of stepping. And everything bends on this guy. I was never sure Monfils was designed for tennis. Not that he isn’t very good at it, mind you, and not that many other tennis players couldn’t play another sport, but Monfils, in particular, is the best example of what we call a pure athlete on the pro tennis tour.
That’s not necessarily a good thing, by the way. I’m currently reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis, a book about the way statistics have changed player evaluations in baseball. It used to be that baseball scouts looked for the best athlete – the five tool player: the guy who ran fast, thres the ball hard, fielded well, hit well and hit with power. The subject of the book is Billy Beane, a five tool player who had all the physical tool but didn’t have the proper mental makeup to play professional baseball.
Beane now chooses players for the Oakland Athletics, a major league baseball team, but if he’d been picking tennis players instead, he might have skipped over Monfils because maturity is a word that has seldom been attached to Monfils’ name. Luckily for tennis, players are not signed to teams and given a big signing bonus, they’re allowed to mature over time and they only get paid when they win matches.
Today Monfils was paid a lot. He beat Ferrer, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1, to reach the semifinals at the French Open. How did he do it?
Monfils started in with the rope-a-dope. If his fellow countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga can be compared to Muhammad Ali, then Monfils actually uses Ali’s tactics. Speaking of which, it’s hard not to think that Tsonga’s run to the Australian Open final didn’t light a fire under Monfils or, at the very least, arrive as a wakeup call.
Anyway, back to the rope-a-dope. Ferrer is a counterpuncher and Monfils didn’t give him anything to punch with so Ferrer had to be the aggressor and that didn’t work so well. Monfils had won the first set and was facing break points at 2-2 in the second set. They were on their third deuce and Ferrer was hitting the ball as hard as he could and running Monfils all over the place. Ferrer finally got to the net and Monfils calmly threaded a backhand down the line and past Ferrer for his second game point.
On the next point, Monfils served and volleyed and put the ball away easily. By now, though, Monfils appeared to be gassed as he lost his next two service games, and the set, and twice leaned over on his racket to prop himself up. Not the best signal to give your opponent and also one of the consequences of a defensive playing style because you end up running a whole lot more than your opponent.
Two errors and an ill-advised drop shot by Ferrer and Monfils was up a break immediately in the third set. Monfils took the gift and, well, continued on with his rope-a-dope. Ferrer couldn’t penetrate Monfils’ defense so he went for more on his shots and made errors, including a mishit and a drop shot into the net to give Monfils the third set.
I’d like to tell you that Monfils has turned a corner. That he’s finally listened to one of his many coaches when they suggest he play more aggressively. He did sneak into the net occasionally and finish off the point and he did turn some second serves into mincemeat but, honestly, I don’t see it. He doesn’t seem to make the connection between playing a grind it out, defensive style of game with a spindly body and a high occurrence of injuries. After today, he has even less reason to listen.
Instead, he frustrated Ferrer so badly that he had the poor guy imitating James Blake by going for smoke on every shot. And Ferrer did it badly. On break point in his first service game of the fourth set, he hit a forehand so hard it barely missed hitting a ballperson on the fly. Monfils took him completely out of his game. Ferrer managed to win only one game in the fifth set.
I will say one thing, Monfils is the most talented grinder in the world and if he can frustrate Ferrer, the number five player in the world, then he can also beat a whole lot of other players. What I saw today is the full commitment of Monfils to his uber-defensive tennis self, this is who he is so we should all just get over it.
And that probably means more of the same: the ongoing rollercoaster ride with the same cycle of injuries interspersed with brilliant play. We might even get the coaching rollercoaster: Monfils mentioned the word “argue” and “coach” in the same sentence three times in his postmatch media session today.
Whatever, strap me in, I’m ready for the ride.