Catch a Falling Star: Gael Monfils

Rob YorkSenior Writer IOctober 1, 2009

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 08:  Gael Monfils of France returns a shot to Rafael Nadal of Spain during day nine of the 2009 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 8, 2009 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

There are many qualities that a champion tennis player must possess: talent, fitness, mental strength, and a sound game plan all come to mind.

Which of these qualities, though, is most important?

It might surprise you, but I’d say talent is the most valuable asset for an athlete. That may sound superficial, but show me a tennis player who is fit, competitive, and tactically astute but is lacking great physical talent and I’ll show you a guy who struggles to win the annual tournament at his local club, much less succeed at the pro level.

A perfect example of my contention would be Gael Monfils; a tennis player who lacks mental strength and a solid game plan, and yet remains in the top 20, because of his talent and fitness.

In fact, he just won his second career title last week.

Monfils won the genetic lottery when he was born: The son of a soccer-playing father, the 6’4” Frenchman is taller and possesses more explosive power than all but a few of the game’s great champions (Boris Becker, for example). Yet, he moves extremely well; it’s not hard to imagine him beating every other player in the game’s history in the 100-meter dash.

Add to this a finely chiseled physique that would give Michelangelo’s David an inferiority complex, and you have the makings of a champion.

However, Monfils hasn't taken advantage of these undeniable physical assets, and has employed the worst game plan of anyone in the top 50 (and possibly lower).

The Frenchman blasts first serves that often reach 130 MPH, but if they come back, he goes on the defensive. Having good defense is an essential skill in modern tennis, but even players like Lleyton Hewitt and Michael Chang, who were exceptionally good at it, attacked with their groundstrokes, attempted to control the center of the court, and came to net to finish points.

Contrary to this sound approach, Monfils usually rolls the ball into play even when his opponent offers a soft return after a big serve. He will then chase the ball for a while, suddenly going for a huge forehand only when out of position or at completely unpredictable times.

This approach once prompted an announcer to say that he isn’t “that interested in playing tennis; I just think he quite likes running around the court and pulling off the impossible.”

After beating Monfils about this time last year, Andy Murray, another player whose defense is central to his game, said that the Frenchman “almost enjoys running too much and almost likes you to dictate play.”

It’s not that he’s been totally without success in using this style: He reached the semis of Roland Garros last year and the quarters this time, and it took no less than Roger Federer to beat him both times. The slow clay of Roland Garros, it would seem, lends him a few extra increments of time to make the impossible happen.

Nevertheless, why should a player with so many natural gifts have reached only No. 9 in the world and won only two titles?

His match with Rafael Nadal at this year’s US Open was probably a good indicator: For one set Monfils’ was content to chase Nadal’s heavy topspin back and forth across Arthur Ashe stadium, producing some incredible shotmaking in the process.

After Monfils won the first set in a tiebreak, however, Nadal–one of the few players on tour who can rightly be considered Monfils’ peer as an athlete—showed the necessity of a game plan. Even a player who is fit will eventually get tired after chasing balls that rotate 3,000 times per minute indefinitely. When Nadal got a break and consolidated it, the Frenchman’s energy evaporated and the Spaniard ran out the match.

If Monfils is satisfied with being a top 20 player who hits spectacular shots now and again, he needs to do nothing more. If he wants to win more frequently, he needs to think more about how to impose his game on the opponent.

The number of Grand Slam champions 6’4” or taller is slim, but none of them–from Stan Smith to Juan Martin del Potro—got there with defense.

There are a couple of ways for him to play more authoritatively. First, after hitting a first serve that puts the opponent on the defensive, he can try to attack with his next groundstroke and get the other guy on the run. Second, he could move forward; though Monfils is by no means an exceptional volleyer, there’s no reason anyone capable of hitting a 118-mph forehand can’t hit a good approach shot, and no reason a guy standing 6’4" can’t cover the net.

Monfils is now 23, which for a tennis player isn’t that young. He’s technically been a pro since 2002, and in that period of time it is hard to justify having gone without winning more than two titles.

He still has the most important attribute, which is talent.

Jim Courier, who had a hearty game and was a fit competitor couldn’t suddenly discover more natural athleticism when his results stagnated. Monfils, though, can still find better ways to play and achieve greater results. If he does, he’s capable of taking our already exciting, athletic game of tennis to new peaks.

First he needs to take an interest in actually playing tennis.