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Gael Monfils interview: Roland Garros, showmanship, Svitolina and Skai



The Athletic

In 2004, the four boys’ Grand Slam titles were split between two 17-year-olds.

Three went to whoever was considered the most talented, the last to probably the second best player – who even then was unwilling to accept that he was second best.

The former had a very good career: a permanent fixture in the world’s top 20, peaking at number 6, with two Grand Slam semi-finals. The second player, the inferior junior, had an outstanding career: three major titles, two Olympic gold medals, a Davis Cup victory and the No. 1 ranking in the world. He did this by maximizing every last drop of his talent, while the other player was seen as not fully realizing his potential.

Twenty years after these junior triumphs, both are approaching the end of their careers. The most successful player is eight months younger, but closer to retirement; Battling injuries for seven years has pushed his body to its limits.

The other player is enjoying a late renaissance after struggling with injuries himself for a few years, but is now ranked 37th at the age of 37, the oldest player in the world’s top 50. He is loved for his showmanship and shooting skills, but is also one of the biggest crowd pleasers wherever he goes, especially at Roland Garros, in his home city of Paris.

On Monday evening, Gael Monfils Court delighted Philippe-Chatrier again for a few hours during the prime night session. It wasn’t just that he defeated Brazilian 24-year-old Thiago Seyboth Wild in four sets, it was also the way he did it: a cavalcade of running forehand passes, leaping backhand volleys and interactions with the crowd.

Twenty-four hours earlier, his former junior rival – Andy Murray – took to the same court to take on Stan Wawrinka. Murray, back from his last fight with an injury, competed well for a few sets but succumbed 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. It is expected to be his last French Open.

Monfils plays against Murray during the first round of Roland Garros in 2006 (Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images)

For a long time, Murray could be used as a stick to beat Monfils with; the contemporary who showed what was possible with additional application. Over time, however, that comparison has become easy. The idea that Monfils isn’t properly committed is foolish – he has twelve titles himself – and their divergent careers are on their own terms.

Defined by a level of dedication that would make most mere mortals shudder, Murray managed to infiltrate the pinnacle of men’s tennis at its modern-day peak and stay there. Monfils, without the promised major titles, is still one of the most popular players on the tour, occupying stadiums around the world. No wonder, if he does things like this…

Monfils certainly doesn’t regret it.

“Impossible,” he countered The Athletics in a conversation on the eve of the tournament.

“So many people forget where I come from, who I am. Nobody knows me. Who I am now, I couldn’t have predicted this for a second. I’m one of the luckiest people who made it. I never expected this career. My mother is a nurse and works night shifts to help me play tennis. My father worked in telecom at the time because he was a football player, but had to quit quite early.

“I lived in not the best area of ​​Paris and had this dream. And now I’m here talking to you. You know my name. It’s impossible. I made it.”

When Monfils was still the all-conquering junior, Murray was asked at Wimbledon in 2004 if the Frenchman was the boy’s equivalent of Roger Federer.

“No, I don’t think so,” said a 17-year-old Murray, with contrarianism soon becoming common.

“He did very well, he won in Australia and France. But last week I had a close match with him, and today he struggled through his match. I beat him at the French Open last year 6-4, 6-1. So he can be beaten.”

Monfils won the junior Wimbledon that year, but Murray got on the board by winning the US Open. Monfils’ hopes of becoming only the second player – after Stefan Edberg in 1983 – to complete a Grand Slam on the boys’ calendar ended in the third round at Flushing Meadows.

Monfils after winning junior Wimbledon against Britain’s Miles Kasiri (Phil Cole/Getty Images)

This may all feel like ancient history, but the couple goes back even further. “It’s crazy because the first time I played Andy was when I was 11 and he was 10,” Monfils recalls.

Monfils made the jump to the professional circuit before Murray, reaching the second round of the 2005 Australian Open. Both he and Murray reached the third round of that year’s Wimbledon, and Monfils was named the ATP newcomer at the end of the season year.

The following year the pair crossed paths again, when they met in the first round of the French Open. Monfils won in five sets to avenge a victory for Murray in their first meeting on the pro tour in Hamburg.

Surprisingly, the two have only met six times on the main tour, with Murray leading the head-to-head clash 4-2. Their most recent meeting at that level was ten years ago, as close to their dominant junior days as they are today. The match, a French Open quarter-final, could be seen as the start of their careers in microcosm, with Murray struggling to win in five sets.

Before that match, Murray said: “He’s a great athlete, maybe the best we’ve ever had in tennis. He has played by far his best tennis here of the Grand Slams. He likes to play in front of a big audience. Gael has always been a great entertainer and he is great for the sport.”

Murray was a two-time Grand Slam champion at the time, and Monfils had not been to the semifinals of a major since the 2008 French Open. Monfils did reach another semi-final, at the US Open in 2016, but Novak Djokovic defeated him in a bizarre match in which the Serb ripped open his shirt, the score was upside down and the heat and humidity were so intense that both players seemed to irritate.

That’s still the furthest Monfils has gone at a Grand Slam, but in the eight years since he has reached two major quarter-finals (one at the 2022 Australian Open, aged 35) and won a further six titles, putting him his career total doubled. No one has reached the Masters level (1000).

Murray has fourteen, on top of all his other major successes.

Monfils and Murray after the Roland Garros quarter-final (Kenzo Triboillaurd/AFP via Getty Images)

“Everyone is different,” Monfils says of his former junior rival. “We have a different goal. I’m a big fan of Andy. His achievements, his career, the man he is. He’s a very respectful man and a cool guy. A legend of the sport.

“I never judge anyone else, everyone thinks differently. I’m trying to learn from him and what he’s done is insanely good. I try not to make similar decisions on my own, but to make decisions that are best for me.”

Monfils also rejects the idea that his talent meant he didn’t work hard or could have applied more. “(People say) ‘Ah, Monfils is not disciplined,’” he told the Guardian this month. ‘Guys, don’t think this, because I’m having fun on the field. The work I do outside is extensive.”

Seeing Monfils in front of your own audience remains one of the best tennis experiences. There is a symbiosis in the way they feed off the other’s energy.

On Monday evening, it didn’t take long for Chatrier’s courthouse to start crackling. The brass band was already in full swing when Monfils somehow chased down a volley in the seventh game and tapped home a winner from a forehand passing shot. He asked the crowd to make more noise, and they did. It was a spectacular end to a rally that showcased Monfils’ excellent defensive and shooting skills. The way he was moving made it hard to believe that he had been forced to leave Geneva last week due to illness and had been taking antibiotics.

Early in the second set, during a drop volley heading into an early break, his main cheerleaders sang, “Allez allez Gael” to the tune of “Everybody Dance Now.”

But in the end he lost that set in a tame flurry of errors, and was broken by love in a demonstration of the fallibility of concentration that probably prevented him from reaching the top. terribly top of the game.

Even during that set there was a leaping backhand volley and a beautifully disguised drop shot; both had the crowd on its feet.

“I love you, Gael!” one supporter shouted. “Me, too!” shouted another.

A brilliant backhand pass helped Monfils break back in the third set after falling behind, and a Mexican surge soon followed. Monfils won the third set, and also took the fourth, sealing it in satisfying fashion: ace, ace, failed smash, ace, winner. The final shot was a typically graceful, flying smash – a version of the slam dunk that Pete Sampras used to do.

Monfils roared with delight, performed a short dance, punched his chest and performed his signature Black Panther celebration on all four sides of the field. The win made him the French men’s player with the most Grand Slam match wins, 122, ahead of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.