You can’t take your eyes off Gael Monfils, the flexible and athletic showman, capable of great creativity; or the honest, straightforward and friendly athlete off the court. In the presence of the softly spoken Frenchman, you realise not just how charismatic he is, but how hard he works.
“People think that we’re talented, gifted,” says Monfils. “Nothing is gifted, nothing is about talent, it’s about work. You work harder than everyone else. People mistake working and winning. You can work really hard and not win, not have the result you want. It’s tough. For all the players on the Tour [at ITF Futures, Challengers and the ATP Tour], they are working from a young age. I’m here now because I’ve worked hard, my parents worked hard and fought very hard to give me the possibility to one day play tennis at the top level.”
His face has covered sports magazines ever since he won three of the four junior Grand Slam championships in 2004; picked up his first ATP Tour title the following year at Sopot (d. Florian Mayer) and subsequently broke into the Top 25, earning the ATP Newcomer of the Year award. “I’ve been judged from a very young age, all the time, but people don’t know your situation: how you’ve been raised, your tennis,” says Monfils, who has a 10-21 record in ATP Tour finals. “It was a blessing for me to play tennis.
“From day one, I was different. I am different. I didn’t pay attention, but I play because I love the sport. I like being around athletes, I like track and field, football, basketball. I am a sportsman inside. I chose tennis because I played from a young age, along with football, judo and basketball. This was the sport that I felt the happiest playing.”
It’s been more than three years since Monfils scaled to a career-high No. 6 in the FedEx ATP Rankings on the back of 44-match wins and a place among the elite eight at the 2016 Nitto ATP Finals in London. Knee and wrist injuries mainly curtailed the court-time of the fans’ favourite, but a second year-end Top 10 finish last season whetted his appetite once more. It’s no fluke that he started 2020 with a 16-3 record, including an 11-match winning streak and two ATP Tour titles: his third at the Open Sud de France in Montpellier and a successful defence of the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam. Only the elasticity of Novak Djokovic, in saving three match points at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, stopped Monfils from reaching his third straight final.
“The biggest part of the Tour is to have success back-to-back, week after week, that’s what we train for physically and mentally,” says Monfils. “I have been very solid, and I think I’m in great shape physically, moving great on the court, which helps my game. When you start to be a bit more confident, you go for your shots. My movement is the key, but that’s when I also try some shots in tough moments.”
Today, the 33-year-old has his sights set on maintaining his position in the Top 10, comfortable not only in his professional life but also with Elina Svitolina, the current World No. 5 on the WTA Tour and his girlfriend of the past 18 months.
“To share the same goals, the dedication and experience is something amazing,” he admits. “It’s a very individual, selfish sport, and most of the time we’re alone, but we appreciate the time we have together: at home or tournaments. I hope I help her, and when we practise together we laugh. Perhaps, I’m more serious when I hit with her, as I want to help Elina to achieve her goals.
“It’s a dream to win a Slam and being in the Top 5, even for one week, is a goal. So many players have the potential, but they struggle like me… I hope one day to have the opportunity.”
– Interview assistance from ATP Tennis Radio