Gael Monfils has made a blisteringly quick start to the new season and is unquestionably one of the most in-form players on tour right now. But the question on most tennis fans lips is how long can he sustain this level, and ultimately, what he can achieve in this season?
As is always is the case with Monfils, it is hard to really predict what is coming next from the enigmatic Frenchman. That is because his career has never followed the same steady trajectory that the careers of so many other players have, for a wide variety of reasons.
Monfils will surely look to make the most of his upturn in form during the clay court swing. That is where we are likely to see the very best from him. Indeed, it is the surface where he has historically played his best tennis, having made the semifinals at the French Open back in 2008. The slow pace of clay courts allow him to use his athleticism that little bit more and play the patient, defensive game from the back of the court he is most comfortable with. But he also has the power in his groundstrokes, especially with the easy motion on his forehand side, to hit through his opponent’s defence, even on the slowest of courts.
Most significantly, he has superior movement and technique than most players when it comes to dealing with the necessary adjustments of sliding on a clay court – as opposed to on hard courts. But the Frenchman will also have a keen eye on what he can achieve at the US Open towards the end of the season. The two Masters 1000’s in Montreal and Cincinnati will be two pivotal tournaments that he will almost certainly be looking to as events where he can build some hard court form. If he can, he will fancy his chances of making a real move at another Major.
Thus far in his career, Monfils has never been able to put together seven consistent matches at a Major. But he will believe that if he stays injury free at the key stages of the season then he can cause some of the top players some problems. He will be a player that every top ten player would rather avoid in the draw, that’s for sure.
Hurdles to be overcome
But what are the factors that could prevent Monfils from getting what he wants out of the season? There’s always been some key things that have impacted the Frenchman over the years. Firstly, he has to be disciplined in his approach off the court. Over the years, Monfils has mostly played a brand of tennis based on long, entertaining rallies from the back of the court. But that really took away the efficiency of his game and it arguably prevented him from winning numerous matches.
The new and improved Monfils we have seen so far this season has sharpened his mental game considerably. He has improved on his shot selection, long his Achilles’ heel, by not going for the extravagant, low-percentage shots from deep behind the baseline that were once his trademark. Instead, he has found a way to play more measured tennis, waiting for the right opening before deploying his considerable power. This isn’t necessarily completely new from him, but he is doing it with a consistency rarely seen in his earlier years on tour.
The next factor is whether Monfils will have the concentration over the course of the season to achieve what he wants to. In the case of the best players in the world, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic being two key examples, their ability to sustain that level over the course of a whole season is what separates them from the likes of say Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, who tend to run very hot and cold. So whilst just getting near to the top of the game is one thing, something Monfils has managed with a career-high ranking of world #6, keeping those standards just as high when everyone is out to beat you is another thing entirely. That is a level that Monfils is still searching for.
Another problem that Monfils has had to endure more frequently than most players injury. The Frenchman has suffered some serious, long-term injuries during majors over the last decade. Indeed, at times, it has felt like he hasn’t had a part of his body that hasn’t been injured. But he’ll need to stay well away from those injuries in order to continue to rise up the rankings. Unfortunately, that may prove difficult. Already, Monfils has suffered a left Achilles injury, which came during his successful fortnight in California, where he made the quarterfinals. But it looks like he’s made the right choice by taking time away as a precaution, so he can build himself up for a fruitful couple of months on the red clay.
Causes for optimism
But why have we seen this huge upturn in results and form from the Frenchman from seemingly out of nowhere? There appears to be a number of reasons. For one thing, Monfils looks to be settled and content with the way that things are progressing off the court in his private life. That invariably affects the way that a player approaches their tennis. Another huge reason for his recent success is the influences in his life that have told him the right things, guided him in the right way and encouraged him to knuckle down and dedicate himself to his tennis.
He’s just recently linked up with well-respected coach Liam Smith, who formerly worked with the hard-working Australian Matthew Ebden. So far, Smith looks to have got the very best out of Monfils in the short period of time they have been working together. In fact, in Smith’s first tournament with Monfils, which was the Rotterdam Open, Monfils won the biggest title of his career to date. He did so by beating his good friend Stan Wawrinka in the title-match, despite going into the match with a poor record in big finals.
But how far can Monfils go in terms of challenging for the big titles? As far as talent goes, Monfils is one of the most naturally gifted players that men’s tennis has had even in this golden era. He can do pretty much anything on a tennis court and it is the unpredictability factor that influences people to attend his matches on a regular basis. He’s a special talent and making the Tour Finals in November has to be a goal. He’ll surely have one eye on qualification for that tournament, particularly after his excellent start to the year.
But actually being able to go all the way and win Majors is another kettle of fish. The Frenchman hasn’t been in that position before. That means he hasn’t got the mental experience of knowing how to handle the hours before a Grand Slam final, and dealing with the pressures that come with it. Against the very best, that could well prove to be his undoing. But if he was to make his way to a semifinal at Roland Garros or, most likely, Flushing Meadows then he’d see that as a job well done and another fantastic year on tour for him.
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