Gael Monfils: Too Good for His Own Good?
We all know or knew that one student during our high school years who had all the brains but absolutely zero drive to effectively manage their intellectual prowess.
It was the student who would never study for a test, not even know there was a test on the day of the test, but of course, without fail, would ace the test and do so before most even got a chance to write their names.
The target of incessant envy and despise, this type of student made heads turn and eyes roll.
But as any high school teacher will tell you, intelligence will not provide just compensation in college where the door shuts on those not willing to put in meaningful time and effort toward their studies.
In the tennis world, this lazy genius archetype is realized in Gael Monfils.
"La Monf" as the Frenchman has been nicknamed has it all but has been unable to find the point where talent and expectation meet.
Let's first delve into the fortes of Monfils then we'll uncover the parts of the Frenchman's game that have been acting as a barrier to his success.
Movement, Defense, Flexibility
Starting with his movement, Monfils is grease lighting. Of course, this speed accounts for his absolutely ridiculous court coverage. In supplement, Monfils' ball-retrieving abilities as a function of his court coverage make him one of the greatest defensive entities in tennis.
Continuing with the defensive capacities of the Frenchman, Monfils is one of the premier sliders in tennis and is well known for defying normal human movement as seen in his consistent desire to put on his skates and drift on hard courts.
Monfils is also one of the most flexible, athletically inclined individuals in all of sports. Unafraid of splits, dives, tumbles, jumps, Monfils has produced shots that only he can come up with as a result of his athletic abilities.
If you watch the video associated with this article, you can see what a true body contortionist Monfils is on the court, defiant to any physical limitation his body wants to impose upon him.
Power, Ground Game
While Monfils is infamous for distancing himself from the baseline and gluing himself to a passive style of tennis, he has the capacity to unleash cataclysmic blows off both wings from the baseline especially from the forehand side where Monfils is a shotgun from any position on the court.
The offensive abilities of Monfils are propagated by his massive serve. Not a player commonly associated with a forceful serve, Monfils, in his healthier years, has found himself near the top of the ATP ace leader board. In 2009, he was 11th in aces, and in 2010, he found himself with the seventh-most aces.
Touch, Net Skills
The flare, the flash and the fury of Gael Monfils often overshadow his adroitness and gentle feel around the net.
Monfils has sharp reflexes, unbounded elasticity and soft hands.
His reflexes allow him to absorb significant amounts of pace from the other side of the net and make him more potent when he has less time to react to the shot of his opponents. The elasticity of Monfils inherently means he will be reaching out to more balls and neutralizing low balls at the net.
The lightness of feel Monfils has at his disposable provides just one more option the Frenchmen has to close out points, allowing him end points before his opponent can make him play another volley.
His speed allows him to abridge the gap between the baseline and the net quickly, thus opening up more angles.
What's the Problem?
For me to sit here and try to assert that Monfils has a specific game plan going into each match would be extremely tough. Of course, since I am not Monfils, it would be irresponsible for me to definitively conclude that Monfils possesses a solidified game plan coming into each match.
His inexplicable shifts in tactics, unprecedented histrionics and hyperaggressive court coverage may in fact be the recipe for success Monfils has crafted for himself.
But really, there are three aspects of the Frenchman's game that have baffled me for years, and they are as followed:
Imbalance between defense and offense
It's not rare for Monfils to take out his tent, sleeping bag and cooler and camp out behind the baseline. For a player with such extraordinary offensive aptitude, Monfils doesn't mind playing a quite ineffective version of rope-a-dope. Unfortunately, this passiveness is Monfils profusely abusing his own talents.
Monfils' level of counter-punching will escalate as he moves further and further behind the baseline, virtually eliminating any offensive possibilities forcing him to win points through stellar, but physically draining, defense.
As has been described, Monfils will stretch or manipulate any limb of his body to get to the next ball. And don't get me wrong, the defensive skills of Monfils are eye candy, but watching such spectacular offensive talent being put at the wayside is disheartening.
For a vast majority of the time Monfils spends on the court, he is running side to side, up and down, extracting one more ball from his opponents. But when he deviates from this defensive norm, his offense is either glorious firepower or gory misfire.
If you look at the video of Monfils playing Baghdatis in the 2007 Australian Open, the first two points illustrate the lack of calibration Monfils has in his playing style. When looking at the second point, we see Monfils pulls off an incredible forehand down the line.
This is the magnitude of power and excellence Monfils can produce. But for every one of those low-percentage forehand down the line shots from six feet behind the baseline that penetrate the court leaving a vapor trail, there are many more that will land in the bottom of the net or at the backstop.
In the following point, starting at 0:42, Monfils blasts a missile up the T drawing a stab reply from Baghdatis. At this point, it appears Monfils can establish an offensive-minded point, but without any rhyme or reason, Monfils chooses the defensive route and retreats five to seven feet behind the baseline, giving Baghdatis control of the point.
Then, Monfils is ultimately able to stabilize the point and end it with a cross-court forehand winner from several feet behind the baseline. This point is really a microcosm of the playing style and potential of Monfils.
Unbridled Theatrics (The Gael Monfils Show)
Every time Monfils steps on court, he plays the role of tennis player and entertainer. He is truly a one-man show. Sadly, while showmanship may be enough to win the favor of fans, the diving, sliding, jumping, yelling and other theatrics of Monfils do not win matches.
All of the emotion, passion and energy that Monfils displays are wonderful to watch, but when exuded in excess, are severely detrimental to achieving the goals of winning matches and staying healthy.
Unsustainable Court Coverage
Imagine for a second that you live in New York and you've been granted acceptance to a school in California. You love the college but don't love the idea of not being able to see your family for more than two times during the four-month semester. So to allow both desires to be met, you decide that you'll just fly back and forth multiple times.
Unfortunately, the financial aspect of this decision isn't working in your favor as money is on the thin side. Conveniently ignoring this fact, you are able to see your family as many times as you would like during the semester using specifically allotted funds for flying. But when the next semester comes around, you realize your funds have dwindled, and your flying capabilities have vanished out of thin air (no pun intended).
The aforementioned analogy easily relates to how Monfils runs himself into physical walls. Monfils has the physical resources to run around the court all day, while stretching and pulling his body in all sorts of insanely absurd ways. But these resources are limited.
He might be getting the most out of his body in the short term aka an individual point or match, but in the long run, he's adhering to a certain brand of physicality that will eventually lose its tact and traction. Like the student from New York, Monfils seeks longevity in his pursuits but is applying a strategy that will only pass the test of time in the short term.
Talent is a Gift...
Author John C. Maxwell once said, "Talent is a gift, but character is a choice..." Outside of the top four, Monfils in my estimation is one of, if not, the most talented player on the ATP tour. He has the power, defense, hands, movement and speed to be great. But whether or not Monfils hones these talents by crafting an on-court mentality that best allows these talents to be utilized remains to be seen.
Monfils has a career-high ranking of No. 7 in the world, and I have no doubt if he is able to clean up the mitigating aspects of his game, Monfils will certainly be blazing full speed ahead toward the top of the rankings.
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