A different Gael Monfils has shown up at this, his eighth, US Open.
Normally, the flamboyant Frenchman is a provocateur on court, equal parts rangy, pure athlete and distracted court jester. But through three thoroughly convincing rounds, Monfils has yet to lose a set, and he has been all business, putting his enormous skills to the task of winning rather than entertaining.
La Monf? Serious and focused? Say it is so!
Monfils’ dissection of his friend and compatriot Richard Gasquet in the third round was a tour de force of emphatic, mesmerizing tennis. The explosive, gazelle-like speed; easy, almost nonchalant power that he can summon from anywhere on the court; and unbridled athleticism were entertainment enough, especially for tennis purists.
Monfils rocketed serves and blistered forehands, punctuated by the occasional fake-and-a-wink drop shot. He hovered close to the baseline and never once slipped into a frustrating pattern of defensiveness, the lackadaisical, passive style of play that has derailed this spectacular athlete in the past.
This is the Gael Monfils that tennis fans have dreamed of seeing, not just for isolated moments during a match but throughout a big tournament. Sure, acrobatic shots are great to marvel at and share on YouTube, but fans have longed to see this man compete hard and live up to his seemingly limitless potential.
Monfils insists that we're not witnessing a different Gael. “I think I’m the same. You don’t understand why, but I understand. I’m cool. As usual.”
Cool was an issue in his round-of-16 upset of No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov, a match that was played in brutal heat and humidity. But again, while he very nearly melted down, muttering to himself in French and at one point looking cooked, Monfils found a way to win. Mercurial as ever, he gave Dimitrov junk and little pace, throwing off the Bulgarian’s precise game.
Throughout his run to the quarterfinals, what has stood out for the most part at this Open hasn’t been Monfils’ highlight reel of crowd-pleasing circus shots, but rather his focused, committed and aggressive play. Unusual for him, the Frenchman has played down-to-earth ball. Monfils has looked like a racehorse with blinders on and the finish line in sight.
Of course, it hasn’t all not been fun and games. There was that shot at the beginning of his second-round match against Alejandro Gonzalez, when Monfils levitated like Michael Jordan at the baseline and slapped a hockey-shot forehand for a winner, lighting up the capacity crowd on Grandstand.
Even a serious Monfils has to be Monfils on occasion.
A Paris native now resident of Switzerland, Monfils has come to this US Open sans coach and family. Just an agent in the player’s box. The result is hard to argue with: a second trip to the quarterfinals in Flushing Meadows and now, on Thursday night, a matchup with five-time champion Roger Federer.
A victory would match the Frenchman’s best performance at a major, which remains a semifinal appearance at Roland Garros in 2008, and he has won five career titles while reaching the Top 10.
That resume is hardly the stuff of an underachiever. Yet fellow players and fans across the globe have long expected more, so talented is Monfils. His tendency has too often been to retreat behind the baseline, content to rally interminably even though he possesses the shots to win points in an instant. And it has sometimes seemed that his laid-back nature and interest in entertaining both himself and the crowd have taken precedence over his interest in winning matches and titles.
Monfils turned 28 on Monday. He professed to have little interest in celebrating: “As a tennis player, it's recovery, sleep, get ready for tomorrow. Is not a big birthday.”
Monfils may not be willing to admit it, but might he be thinking that, as he nears 30, the window of opportunity to truly make his mark, and win a Slam, might be closing?
All we know is what we’ve seen: four matches, 12 sets, no baloney.
We’ll take your word for it, Gael. You’re the same guy. You’re cool. Playing this way, cooler than ever.