Serene Monfils at home in US Open buzz

The 2016 semi-finalist is back to his gregarious self, playing with a smile and swagger at Flushing Meadows.

Gaël Monfils smiling at the 2021 US Open© Adam Glanzman/USTA
 - Alex Sharp

Most athletes have struggled with several elements of life on tour in pandemic times, whether it’s the bubble life, restrictions or lack of crowd.

Gael Monfils is no different, but it’s magic to have this French firecracker competing again with a smile and sense of exuberance.

For a player who relishes the interaction with fans in the stands, who wears his heart on his sleeve, tennis in these turbulent times has been tough on the world No.20.

Gaël Monfils hitting a backhand in front of the crowd at the 2021 US Open© Adam Glanzman/USTA

Tennis is part of the Monfils DNA

Monfils endured a stretch of 15 months from February 2020 until May this season without a match victory, leaving his Australian Open press conference in tears, broken by the cycle.

“I think it took me a long process for me personally to reset myself, to be motivated, try to enjoy what I’m doing,” said Monfils prior to Roland-Garros. “I love playing tennis. Tennis is part of my DNA, so it was a little bit longer than other players to settle down and admit to these conditions and try to be as happy as I can.”

Fast forward to the US Open and the infectious grin is back, the extensive dance moves are back, his jaw-dropping athleticism continues to defy belief, the showtime shot-making has returned. Something has clicked.

Before the US Open, where the Frenchman was a semi-finalist in 2016, Monfils posted on social media; "You don't always need a plan. Sometimes you just need to BREATHE, TRUST, LET GO and see what happens."

It’s certainly working.

Monfils has compiled two performances bursting with panache. The No.17 seed efficiently dispatched Federico Coria to the loss of just seven games and then utilised a strong serving display (81 per cent of first serve points won) to overcome Steve Johnson 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in an enthralling encounter.

“We always have good battles. I knew I had to be very consistent on my defence and I returned well, on that I am happy. I was serene, I was physically good,” declared the 35-year-old.

“Not an easy match in difficult conditions, with an atypical player therefore difficult to commit. But I went there, I went on the fly. Overall I'm happy with my game.”

Five times a centurion

But why is the No.17 seed feeling so serene?

One obvious off court is factor is he married fellow tennis star Elina Svitolina back in July.

On the court, Monfils posted his 500th career win at the Cincinnati Masters as another superb milestone in a career including 10 titles so far and two major semi-finals.

"It’s a great achievement and I'm very proud," said Monfils, the 11th active male player to achieve the feat.

 "It's a blessing and I'm very happy about it. I never thought that when I started I would be at that amount of wins."

Hear Gaël Monfils roar!© Adam Glanzman/USTA

Crowd the key component

Simply put, faced with full stands, Monfils is a completely different competitor.

A quarter-final in Toronto and Cincinnati last 16 tussle with world No.7 Andrey Rublev (two tight tie-break sets) demonstrates that returning crowds have boosted the Frenchman. He’s feeding off that extra energy, the extra motivation provided by roars amongst the rows.

Unsurprsingly, that sentiment is reciprocated, fans Stateside have relished witnessing the resurgence of Monfils and his hot-shot repertoire reel.

“I always say when I come to the US Open I almost feel at home. A crazy atmosphere,” stated Monfils after defeating Johnson.

“Even though I was playing an American, it was crazy. I missed it. I love that. Even when you play badly or worse, you are so carried, you have an energy. This match, on a field without anyone, it's hard for me. Positive energy keeps it coming back.

“I’m hoping that it continues, that it becomes more and more normal. It's simple, I started winning again when there were people. The arrival of the public, these are much more natural conditions. As soon as there is an audience, it's incredible.”

During his on-court interview Monfils smirked and addressed the fans.

"I love the support guys. This year I want more support and I’ll give you a good show no matter what. No worries.”

Anyone would welcome more of a Monfils show and the US Open crowds are in luck.

Next up, the Frenchman will take to court facing the Italian sensation, world No.16 Jannik Sinner.

Lights, camera, Gael! It’s showtime once again.