Style over everything

Gael Monfils is not the best tennis player in the world, but he is easily the most entertaining

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A few weeks ago, I was playing tennis against a nice guy, pretty sure his name was Chris. He seemed like a Chris, I mean, as far as I know, every Chris I’ve met — including the Christines — have been very nice people.

Anyway, when the very friendly match ended, and I had lost decisively, I had this overwhelming thought: I could play Chris one billion times and never beat him.

It isn’t that Chris is a better tennis player than I am. He is better, but I feel sure he’d deny that. It’s probably true that I have a better forehand than he does, a better serve than he does, and I’m better at the net than he is. It’s true that he probably did not hit even five winners in the entire match and I probably hit four or five times that many. But none of this matters because I could never beat Chris, not ever, and we both know it.

See, Chris is the sort of player who is in phenomenal shape and has unlimited patience and, as such, he runs down every single ball and bloops every single ball back.

I can never and will never beat a player like Chris.

You will ask, perhaps, what any of this has to do with French tennis star Gael Monfils, the supposed subject of this piece. I suppose it comes down to this: I could never play tennis like Chris. I would win way more often if I did play like Chris, but my brain just is not hardwired that way. I play tennis for the thrill of the shot. I will double-fault games away again and again because I crave the joy of the ace. I will make a million forehand errors in the odd hope of hitting one or two Federer-type winners. I go for the topspin lob even though I don’t have a topspin lob in my repertoire. I will crack backhands into the bottom of the net in the baseless hope that this time — this time — I will rip a backhand winner like Stan Wawrinka.

This might, in the hands of the wrong reporter, be called “audacious tennis.” The proper phrase, however, is “stupid tennis.” I know it’s stupid. I know that every match I go for shots that I might — MIGHT — be successful one out of 50 times. I know that I will lose matches to players I should beat because I am trying things that I might have pulled off once before in my life. It’s beyond stupid.

But I also know that while I would be a much more successful tennis player if I would pull back, get the ball over, wait for my opponent to make the first mistake, I’m incapable of doing it. I don’t mean I’m too stubborn to do it — although that’s true too. But competitive spirit — the willingness and ability to do whatever is necessary to win — is a talent, as sure as vertical jump and arm strength, and I don’t have it. I think of my tennis game much in the same way I think of the Han Solo scene in the original Star Wars, the one where where he breaks into the detention area and briefly tries to pretend he is an officer for the Empire.

SOLO: “Everything is under control. Situation normal.”

INTERCOM VOICE: “What happened?”

SOLO: “Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction … uh, but, uh, everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now. How are you?”

INTERCOM VOICE: “We’re sending a squad up.”

SOLO: “Uh, um, negative, negative, we have a reactor leak here now, uh, give us a few minutes to, uh, lock it down, very dangerous.”

INTERCOM VOICE: “Who is this? What’s your operating number?”

At which point Han Solo blasts the intercom. “Boring conversation anyway,” he says.

That’s how I’d be trying to play Chris tennis — I might be able to fake it for a minute or two, but sooner or later everything in me would revolt against the style of play, against the limitations it presents, against the crushing realization that I’ve given up on hitting the miracle shot. I’d give up and blast the intercom. I’d break apart and try the utterly pointless Gael Monfils between-the-legs volley (and probably kill myself doing so).

Gael Monfils has never been Top 5 in the world, has never reached the final of a Grand Slam tournament and has never beaten Novak Djokovic in the 12 times they have faced each other. And still, Monfils is — in the word most prominently used by my 15-year-old daughter — lit. “Lit” apparently, if my daughter is to be trusted on such matters, is the current hip slang version of (in reverse time) da bomb, boss, awesome, cool, dyn-o-mite, way out, gone (Daddy-O), the cat’s meow, the bee’s knees. Point is, Monfils is wonderful in just about every way. I root for him to win every single major championship until he doesn’t.

The thing that makes Monfils such a joyous player is that he is utterly incapable of toning down the turbulent magic in his game. He has tried for years. He is by all accounts the fastest player on tour, the most athletic player on tour, the most breathtaking player on tour. Every year — it has become an annual tradition like Breakfast at Wimbledon — there will be whispers about Monfils moderating his game, playing smarter, getting tougher. And tennis observers will note breathlessly that IF he ever did get his game under control, IF he ever did add competitive fire to his artistic splendor, IF he ever did play to win rather than to serve whatever higher lighthearted purpose that rattles around in his mind, he would be an overwhelming tennis force.

Then, of course, Gael Monfils becomes Gael Monfils again, playing sporadically incandescent tennis to the beat of whatever music is playing in his head.

There is always so much talk about what Monfils could be that I wonder if we don’t appreciate enough what he is. As a child, he was an athletic prodigy. He probably had the talent to be an NBA basketball player. He probably had the talent to be an Olympic sprinter. He probably had the talent to be an electrifying striker. He is basically Usain Bolt and Messi and Simone Biles rolled into one body. He could have been anything. This is a man who, in 2006, when he was just 19, showed up in Las Vegas to play in a tournament and, for fun, entered the Paddle Tennis Championships. He had never played paddle tennis before and he beat the player regarded as No. 1 in the world.

Yes, anything, but he loved playing tennis. You get the sense that tennis was the sport that gave him the best chance to express himself.

And this is what he does on a tennis court: Express himself. There was the time in Monte Carlo against Alexandr Dolgopolov that he hit a dreadful dropshot and turned his back to the ball in disgust. Only then at the last second, when Dolgopolov bashed the ball into the open court, Monfils suddenly awoke and somehow chased down the ball and hit a winner. It was impossible.

There was the time at the U.S. Open against Alejandro Gonzalez when a ball floated toward him and he decided for whatever reason to jump straight up in the air (he probably could have been a high jumper too) and in one glorious motion unleash a titanic forehand that looked as if it was shot right out of a video game. It was impossible.

There was the time in Montreal against Juan Carlos Ferrero, at the end of a 26-shot rally, when Monfils chased down a backhand, then raced across the court and somehow reached it to hit a running forehand. He was probably 15 feet off the court when Ferrero then hit a soft half-volley to the other side of the court. Most players in the world wouldn’t even try to chase it down. Monfils took off, reached it and with one hand, cracked a winner down the line. It was impossible.

There was the time against Marin Cilic in Indian Wells when he chased down two overhead smashes and a follow drop volley to win the point. “He’s everywhere!” the Sky Sports announcer shouted in wonder. Yes, it was impossible.

Well, there is a virtually unlimited number of these to talk about — you can go on YouTube and see for yourself. There you can find Gael Monfils’ Top 10 Awesome Points, Top 10 Funniest Moments, Best Points, Amazing Points, Top 10 Improvisations, and so on. If you go to a Monfils match, any match, your jaw will drop at least five times. But he also might lose the match.

So what do you make of such a career? What do you make of a 30-year-old tennis player who has hit more amazing shots in the last decade than perhaps anyone, but has never come close to winning a major championship? What do you make of a player who on the day he feels right will fight to the brink of exhaustion, on the day he feels wrong will roll over, and on all days will say without hesitation that he looks at tennis as a sport and not as a job?

Here’s what I make of Monfils: I love the guy. I love him because I relate to him, because I feel him, because I think he is playing tennis for the art and the fun. We have come to believe that winning is not just the most important thing, not just the only thing, but it is the very reason to play sports. Monfils is the antithesis of that. If you could hit miracle shots like Gael Monfils, wouldn’t you?

A couple of weeks ago, Monfils played Japan’s Kei Nishikori in the Olympic quarterfinal. Nishikori is basically the highest version of the Chris that I played a few weeks ago — Kei might even mean “Chris” in Japanese. He has beautiful ground strokes, he chases every ball down and he wears you down. He obviously has some weapons, but more he wins by outlasting.

The two played a thoroughly wonderful match, back and forth, and it ended in a third-set tiebreaker. Monfils promptly unleashed some of his sorcery and took a 6-3 lead in that tiebreaker. He was one point from winning the match and going to the semifinal. I was watching the match with my pal Dave, a former college tennis player, and we both said the same thing: Monfils absolutely could lose this.

Sure enough, Nishikori won the next two points behind two good serves, and then it was Monfils’ turn to serve. He tried for a big first serve, of course, and missed. It was second-serve time.

“Double fault,” I predicted.

“Yep, he will go for too much and double fault,” Dave said.

Monfils promptly went for too much (“To unbalance him,” he would explain later) and double faulted. He then lost the next two points to lose the match.

Now, would it have been smarter for Monfils to make sure he made his second serve to give himself a chance to win the match? Probably. But as Fast Eddie says in “The Hustler:” “Percentage players die broke too, don’t they?”

Monfils is back at another U.S. Open, and he’s the best tennis show on earth. He will also probably lose before too much longer, but until then, it will be fun to watch. As the scorpion and the frog story goes, it’s in his nature. And I love him for that because, while I know that I could never do any of the things that Gael Monfils can do, I also know: It’s in my nature too.