After notching a first-round win in Shanghai last month, Arthur Fils paused to sign the TV camera near the umpire’s chair, as is customary at many ATP Tour events. The #NextGenATP star's message, 'Moving Like La Monf', was as much for his good friend and fellow Frenchman, Gael Monfils, as it was for fans watching at home.
“[It referred to] everything,” Fils told ATPTour.com last week when asked exactly what he had meant by his camera salute to Monfils. “I mean, on the court I'm trying to move like him. He is 37 years old, and he is moving like a god. And of course, [off court] he's a smooth guy, walking nicely and everything, so I'm doing it like him.”
Fils' message caught the attention of the man himself.
“It was very nice for me, to be honest,” said Monfils, who earlier this month lifted his 12th ATP Tour title in Stockholm. “I was flattered."
Fils’ tribute in Shanghai came just weeks after both he and Monfils had represented Team Europe at the Laver Cup. Despite already being good friends, both players enjoyed the opportunity to spend an extended period together at this year’s edition of the annual teams' event, held in Vancouver.
“It was unbelievable, because he's like a big brother to me,” said Fils. “To be with him, to be close with him, to talk with him during all five days was very nice. I'm really happy about his title [in Stockholm], because he played unbelievable, and I'm really happy to watch him winning again. I think he will be back very soon with a top ranking.”
Monfils reflected: “I got to spend more time with him, because he’s brand new to the Tour and Vancouver was really the first time we could spend a lot of time together. That was great to spend time with [Arthur] the person, and with all the players.”
While the age gap between the two might naturally make Monfils something of a ‘mentor’ for Fils, the former World No. 6 says that his young countryman possesses many of the off-court characteristics he has always valued highly.
“With some players, we knew each other from a young age, so we grew up together,” said Monfils. “With [Arthur], we have a massive gap. He's the age of my little sister, so I couldn't have this chance to spend time with him.
“[Laver Cup] was great. I love the person he is. That's the most important stuff for me. He's unbelievable [on the court], of course. But he’s a young man, very nice, very kind, very polite, and that's what matters for me.”
Fils is one of a host of #NextGenATP Frenchman making great strides on the ATP Tour. The 19-year-old, who is currently fifth in the Pepperstone ATP Live Race To Jeddah, looks almost certain to reach the season-ending Next Gen ATP Finals, for which his countrymen Luca Van Assche and Arthur Cazaux are also in qualification contention.
It was in this context, as one member of a group of promising juniors, that the 12-time ATP Tour titlist Monfils first came across his young countryman. The 37-year-old, who has been one of the spearheads of French tennis for nearly two decades, recalls Fils being touted for a bright future from early on.
“As a junior, a lot of people were pointing out his name,” said Monfils. “Of course, not just focused on him, because there was a group of young kids and Arthur was a part of this. It was pretty cool. At Roland Garros he was in the [2021 Boys’ Singles] final against Luca [Van Assche].
“When I went to Paris to practise, I met him. We practised together for the first time. As always, you know, when you're a bit older, you chat with younger players and always tell them, if they have any questions, don’t hesitate.”
Perhaps Fils’ reputation as a big talent explains why he Monfils did not offer him much time to settle when the pair first hit together at France’s National Tennis Centre.
“We practised together once, when I was probably 15 or 16. I remember that he was hitting the ball so hard,” recalled Fils, before cracking a smile. “I don't know why, maybe he was trying to show me his paw!”
Fils’ earned his first Pepperstone ATP Ranking point at the age of 16 and has not had to wait long to build considerably on that early achievement. A year ago, the then-18-year-old was the World No. 308 and had never played a tour-level match. This week, Fils will compete at the Rolex Paris Masters at a career-high No. 36, having lifted his first ATP Tour crown in Lyon in May and reached another tour-level championship match in Antwerp earlier this month.
“I saw him doing his thing, trying to get up the rankings, and [I was] following him with a lot of interest,” said Monfils of Fils. “[I was] quite happy to see a kid who is something special be that strong that early. We met up at some tournaments, on some occasions, and then we started to get to know each other better.”
Arthur Fils in action earlier this month in Shanghai. Photo: Peter Staples/ATP Tour.
Although many of the younger Frenchmen on Tour have quickly established themselves as his rivals at the top of the game, the 37-year-old Monfils continues to offer advice whenever his countrymen may ask for it. Fils certainly hopes that Monfils’ return to the winners’ circle in Stockholm is a sign that there is plenty yet to come from one of the Tour’s great entertainers.
“It's very nice, because he's giving so much experience,” said Fils. “He's helping us a lot… It's very nice to have him on the Tour and I think he is going to stay for a bit longer now.”
With his Lyon title run, the then-18-year-old Fils became the youngest French ATP Tour champion since Monfils won in Sopot in 2005, and he has shown little sign of being overawed by success at such a young age. Monfils believes his younger colleague has all the tools to find his own path.
“In a way, I really want to protect him a little bit,” said Monfils.” It's tough, because we of course all know he has a massive potential, and we say it. So, this puts a little bit of pressure [on him], and we don't want to put [him under] pressure, because I want him to be him.
“He's going to write his own story, though, and I'm sure he will do unbelievable stuff.”