In 2004, Gael Monfils won the first three of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments – Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon – and finished the year as the top-ranked junior in the world.
Later that year, he gave fans good reason to salivate over his star potential when he reached the quarterfinals of his maiden Association of Tennis Professionals tournament in Metz, France. He followed that up by reaching the second round of the Paris Masters, his first ATP series 1000 event.
Since then, Monfils has indeed had moments of stardom in his 15 years on the pro circuit. But one could argue his career has been a study in underachievement. He has been to the mountaintop in 29 tournaments but has come down clutching a title only eight times. He reached a career-high ranking of No. 6 in November 2016, but because of injuries he struggled to remain inside the top 50 over the following 18 months.
Perched at No. 32 on the ATP World Tour at the beginning of 2019, it appeared Monfils’s best tennis was behind him. But the 32-year-old black Frenchman suddenly flipped a switch and has re-emerged as a player to be reckoned with.
When the French Open begins on the red dirt in Paris on May 26, the now 16th-ranked Monfils will be among the seeded players in the draw. I am thrilled by the prospect that this could be the year he fulfills the promise he showed as a teenager.
Without question, the odds are against Monfils winning the season’s second Grand Slam, given the dominance of Rafael Nadal, the king of clay who has 11 titles at Roland Garros. And, even though Rafa has shown some vulnerability this year on his favorite surface, there are World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, the G.O.A.T. Roger Federer and Dominic Thiem, considered the heir apparent to Rafa’s throne on clay, to contend with.
But Monfils has been playing inspired tennis this year. He was off to the best start of his career, compiling a 15-2 record that included his second 500-level title, before an achilles injury forced him to withdraw from a quarterfinal showdown with Thiem at Indian Wells.
After a three-week layoff, Monfils returned to the high-caliber level of play. Though he got bounced in the first round at the Italian Open, he reached the quarterfinals in Estoril and Madrid. All three tournaments are considered tune-ups for playing at Roland Garros.
Only one other black male tennis player has won the French Open. That was Yannick Noah, also a Frenchman, who won in 1983. Arthur Ashe is the only other black player to win a Grand Slam – the US Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975.
Monfils has posted his best career Grand Slam numbers at the French Open, where he has a 33-12 won-lost record. He reached the semi-finals in 2008 and made the quarterfinals in 2009, 2011 and 2014.
If you have never seen Monfils play, treat yourself. There is no player more exciting than the supremely athletic Frenchman nicknamed “La Monf.” When he’s feeling it, he can beat anyone on tour – except, perhaps, Djokovic (Monfils is 0-15 against the Serbian).
Among his 455 career wins are two against Rafa and four against Federer. He has earned more than $15 million in prize money.
For a display of how spectacular Monfils can be, click the link below to one of his highlight videos from a match in Madrid.
But as exciting as Monfils can be, he can be equally enigmatic at times. He has explosive power from both the forehand and backhand wings, but he tends to play a defensive game that is based on long rallies from well beyond the baseline. He seems more interested in entertaining than winning.
Then, there are times when he seems to have run out of gas, especially when he goes deep in a tournament. I often have wondered whether his lack of endurance stems from too many nights on the dance floor and not enough days in the gym, as Monfils has a reputation for frequenting the dance clubs.
This year, however, Monfils seems freshly motivated. His stellar play has caught the attention of tennis analysts and commentators, some of whom have speculated whether new girlfriend, Elina Svitolina, the No. 9 ranked player on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, has something to do with his improved performance.
I wonder whether he’s been rejuvenated by the blockbuster movie “The Black Panther” about a black super-hero who is the protector and ruler of the highly advanced African nation called Wakanda. In his post-match victory salutes to the crowd, Monfils now gives the Wakanda greeting, folding his arms across his chest with fists clinched.
Whatever it is that has his mojo working these days, I truly hope the force stays with him.