It is his best start to a season in 15 years; he has one trophy in his kitbag already this year; he is through to the quarter-finals of the BNP Paribas Open. Is this the same Gael Monfils we have all known and loved for the best part of 15 years?
Monfils, a lover and an enigma
Is this the same Gael Monfils we have all known and loved for the best part of 15 years?
Well, yes and no. The old Monfils is still there – the magnificent athlete, the innovative thinker with racket and ball (what others regard as a lost cause, he sees as a winner waiting to be put away) and the unique character who cannot fail to win admirers whenever he steps on court. He is a lovely bloke, is Gael.
A new love, a newfound success
But this year, La Monf has a new admirer, one Elina Svitolina. The two told the world about their relationship during the Australian Open and out in the Californian desert, they have been inseparable on and off the court (they are both through to the last eight). It may sound a bit clichéd to say that his new love has inspired his newfound success but there is always a grain of truth behind every hackneyed old saying.
As players, you could not find two more different characters. Where Monfils is the great showman, the mercurial genius, Svitolina is serious, dogged and utterly devoted to the task ahead of her. She plays tennis, she thinks tennis and she never wavers. That is not the way Monfils thinks about tennis – he is simply not made that way.
“I admire what she’s doing, how she works, the mentality she has,” he said recently to a French newspaper. “It’s incredible. But I always say not for me, not for me. She’s too serious for me. It’s her way. It’s her way to be the way she is.
“The only motivation that I will say that we have is to make the other proud. I love it when she wins. I’m very proud of her. I think it’s the same for her.”
Make her proud
So a little of the Svitolina method is rubbing off on La Monf, then. He wants to make her proud and, this year, he is doing just that. This is nothing new.
When the very talented but depressingly erratic Grigor Dimitrov was dating Maria Sharapova, his results improved dramatically. Yes, he admitted then, he did talk tennis to Maria and, yes, she did give him decent advice about the business of fighting your way out of a hole in a match. And it worked.
Since he first stepped on to the professional tour, Monfils has always been an enigma. He is possibly the best athlete out there and yet that body of his is constantly breaking down. His game is not only a delight to watch, it is also extremely difficult to stop from the other side of the net. Or it is when La Monf’s mind and body are in harmony and his game is “on”. The trouble is that that game has not been “on” regularly enough during his career for him to claim the rewards his talent deserves. Until now.
Blissfully happy off the court, he is now extremely happy on it (just ask Philipp Kohlschreiber how happy Monfils is after the German took an absolute pasting from Monfils on Thursday night). Signing the camera “G.E.M.S”, the name of his Instagram account with Svitolina, it was clear where he thought his inspiration was coming from. But Svitolina’s inspiration is coming from a less romantic source: she works as hard on her mental toughness as she does on her physical strength to make the best player she can be.
Trusting you team
“I really enjoy discovering something new about the humans,” she said. “It's a big part, psychology is a big part of sport, any sport. In tennis, I would say in particular, because the matches are very long and it's up and down. You lose, you win points, and you have to stay very strong and be tough. When you go on court, you are alone, and you have to make decisions. You have to make statements in your mind. That's very important.
“The year also is very long. You have lots of matches. Maybe you lose twice or three or four times in the first round, so you have to regroup. You know, don't get upset about it, because daily everyone is putting lots and lots of work.
“It's all about just trusting, trusting it and trusting your team and, you know, find the right people to surround yourself.”
In Svitolina, Monfils has found the perfect person to surround himself with. She has been the making of him this year – he could not be happier and his results are there to prove it.