French connection for foreign players
Gael Monfils is relying on home support as he returns to his favourite tournament.
Many would agree that a Gael Monfils match is unlike anything else you can experience in tennis.
The same can be said of a Gael Monfils practice – something a few lucky spectators got to witness on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Thursday, as the French entertainer spent two and a half hours honing his skills at the newly-refurbished arena.
Back at his most successful Grand Slam, the world No.16 took us on a joyride during his training session with Frances Tiafoe.
After the pair showcased their talents in a practice set, Monfils and Tiafoe were joined by their respective coaches Liam Smith and Zack Evenden for a doubles tiebreak. That was, of course, followed by a game of “butts up” that saw Evenden and Tiafoe successfully hit their targets – Monfils and Smith’s behinds – on their first tries.
Tiafoe celebrated like he had just scored a hat-trick in a Champions League final as Monfils laughed in pain.
One would assume that would spell the end of Monfils’ practice but it did not. The Frenchman spent another 40 minutes on court with his coach Smith hitting power forehands at lightning speed, before Stefanos Tsitsipas and his crew eventually arrived to take over centre court.
“I think I haven’t played that much these last days, I’ve been resting a little bit. So I have to put in more work these next few days,” Monfils told rolandgarros.com after practice.
“I’ve never really come that early to a slam before, especially here. So these days, I’ll use them to get more hours on the court, and that’s why actually [I had a longer than expected practice].
Roland-Garros holds a special place in Monfils’ heart and it’s a place that has often brought the best out of him. He won the junior title in Paris in 2004, and went on to reach the semi-finals in the men’s event four years later. His record at his home slam is 33-12 win-loss, with his 73.33 per cent success rate being his best among the four majors.
He reached three more quarter-finals here, the last of which came in 2014.
Some players avoid arriving to a slam early so as not to spend too much of their build-up over-thinking or over-training. Roland-Garros is always Monfils’ biggest goal each year, so it’s understandable why he typically opts to come to the tournament a bit late.
“Yes a little bit maybe you think too much. But also you show a bit what you’re working on when [you arrive early to a slam],” he adds.
In his 15 years as a pro on tour, Monfils has done things his own way. His number one priority is always to enjoy himself in everything he does and he acknowledges that his laid back attitude is not for everyone.
“I think what I'm doing, how I practice, I'm not sure like many players will be able to do what I'm doing,” he told reporters in Dubai three months ago, during his run to the semi-finals there.
“In a way, it's different. I won't be able to practice how some players do because it's way different. Even I think it’s easier for me to adapt myself to practice like them than them to practice like me.”
His girlfriend, world No.9 Elina Svitolina, has been a present figure both on the practice court with Monfils and in his box during matches, but he insists they each follow their own philosophies when it comes to their approach to tennis.
“I admire what she's doing, how she work, the mentality she has. It's incredible. But I always say but not for me, not for me. She's too serious for me,” he said in Dubai.
“For myself, I'm serious in my way, which is normal way. It's not different. I put a lot of work with my coach, a lot of work with myself to be back. Definitely is a bit different than her. At the end we try to be at the top with different way, different culture. That's the beauty of the relationship.”
Tiafoe, a 21-year-old American ranked 35 in the world, looks up to Monfils in many ways and admires his approach to the game.
“I think me and Gael are very alike in the sense that we’re very relaxed. Obviously we work hard but we also like to have a good time,” Tiafoe told rolandgarros.com after his hit with Monfils.
“He’s unbelievable, he’s one of the best ever doing it in my eyes. Obviously he hasn’t won a major or anything like that but his talent level is off the charts. He can do anything he wants to the ball, most athletic player we’ve probably ever seen in tennis. He’s unbelievable for tennis and I’m just happy I came around at a time when he’s still playing.”
Surely many of Monfils’ contemporaries feel the same way.
For the 32-year-old Switzerland resident, Roland-Garros is about family. His father Rufin had just arrived from Guadeloupe the day before and was with him on court on Thursday. He had many acquaintances and friends in the stands watching his practice, and he’ll have more around when the tournament starts. It’s how he keeps the pressure off in his attempt to become France’s first men’s singles champion since Yannick Noah in 1983.
“I just enjoy it. For me it’s always special to be here. I meet up with all my family, I hadn’t seen my dad since last year, so it’s cool he’s here. I’m happy to see my brother, my sister, my mum, my cousins, aunts, uncles, everyone… so it’s more that that excites me the most,” says Monfils.
He’s got a lot more to be excited about. Despite an Achilles injury that sidelined him for nearly six weeks earlier this spring, Monfils has enjoyed a promising 2019 so far, halving his ranking within the first five months of the year, and capturing his eighth career title at the ATP 500 event in Rotterdam in February – his first trophy with his new coach Smith, whom he hired at the end of 2018.
In Madrid earlier this month, Monfils held two match points against Roger Federer before narrowly losing to the Swiss in a third-set tiebreak.
The popular Frenchman admits he’s still finding his best form since he returned from injury less than a month ago. He feels he’s hitting better “but not as clean” as he would like. Still he knows that Roland-Garros has a magical effect on him no matter what.
“I think I felt good here every year, even though some years I haven’t played in the semis or the quarters, every time I feel good here,” he assures.
“I feel strong, I feel tough to beat every time. Even when I’m playing bad, with the adrenaline, with the crowd, with the belief, I think that makes me a tough opponent no matter what. I don’t really pay attention about my tennis level here. It’s more about the belief and the emotion.”