Monfils: 'Different Is Not Forbidden'
During Roland Garros in 1998, a nearly five-minute-long profile aired on French television featuring a boy with glasses, braces and big dreams. In the intro to the piece, the host referred to the boy as a “future Yannick Noah”.
That boy was Gael Monfils.
“C’est un rêve d'être dans les dix premiers mondiaux,” Monfils said, flashing the big smile that millions have come to know over the years.
“It’s a dream to be in the Top 10 of the world.”
The Frenchman has done that and plenty more. Having reached a career-high No. 6 in the ATP Rankings, won more than 500 tour-level matches and earned more than $20 million in prize money, it is safe to say Monfils has accomplished his dreams. Twenty-four years later, he still points to that interview.
“It was a big dream,” Monfils told ATPTour.com. “I still live my dreams 100 per cent. I’m living in my dream. I am blessed, I am lucky. People don’t see how much work I put into this, how many sacrifices I’ve made and how many sacrifices my parents made for me.”
Since he was a junior, Monfils has been considered one of the most gifted players in tennis. He is as athletic as anyone on Tour and when at his best, the Frenchman’s ball-striking is jaw-dropping. Richard Warmoes, the former Monfils coach who was featured in the 1998 profile, saw plenty in his player's physical and mental potential as well as his ability to defend and accelerate through the ball.
“I felt he was capable of achieving great things and one day winning a Grand Slam such as Roland Garros,” Warmoes said.
But Monfils has faced stiff competition in the nearly two decades he has spent on Tour. The Paris native owns an 8-45 record against the ‘Big Four’ of Novak Djokovic (0-17), Roger Federer (4-10), Rafael Nadal (2-14) and Andy Murray (2-4).
The Frenchman has understood what he was up against since he was a boy. Warmoes, who worked with Monfils from age six to 13, vividly recalls travelling with his charge to Les Petits As, an international junior tournament that has seen some of the world’s best players make their mark.
“Gael said to me when he saw a young player come out of the [court] — it was Rafael Nadal — ‘You see Richard, everyone only talks about Richard Gasquet, but Rafael will be much stronger than Richard and he scares me because I don't see how to beat him,’” Warmoes recalled. “The next day we trained on half the [court] next to Jamie and Andy Murray. Gael then said to me, ‘You see Richard, everyone is talking about Jamie, but his little brother Andy will be much stronger and will become a very great player’.
“Everything was said. In two days Gael had just told me about two players who for him were going to be very very strong, and who wrote the history of tennis by being part of the famous ‘Big Four’.”
Unfortunately for Monfils, he has often experienced that firsthand. On Tuesday at the Mutua Madrid Open, he will get an 18th crack at earning his first win against Djokovic. But like he was as a young boy, Monfils remains self-aware.
“The guy is better than me, that is it,” Monfils said of Djokovic on Monday. “Every match is an opportunity to win, I try to take some lessons. He can beat me tomorrow and maybe at Rome and then Roland Garros and then, maybe, I can beat him once.”
Monfils will try his best and accept the result. The 35-year-old works hard, competes and enjoys the process.
“For me, having fun and enjoying what I’m doing is key. I’m very blessed to do a sport as my job. I maybe get my pleasure in a different way than others and most people. [But] I always say, different is not forbidden,” Monfils said. “I have my fun, I like it. For me, it’s a lucky time. It’s quite unbelievable what we’re doing. I try just to enjoy as much as I can. I know this is not forever.
“Honestly I just be me and compete. At the same time if I can have my fun, why not?”
When you watch a match featuring Monfils, you will probably see something that you will not in almost any other match. That could be a leaping overhead smash, a tweener or some sort of mid-air acrobatics that nobody else on Tour is capable.
“Why I’m doing some different shots, it’s because I feel like I can do it. Actually at the beginning it was for my own satisfaction,” Monfils said. “When [NBA star] LeBron [James] gets an open layup, would you do a layup or would you dunk it? Most people, they sometimes acknowledge my athleticism and when I do something they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a show.’ For me, I can do it and I want to do it. It’s the same.
“When [basketball players] do an alley-oop, it’s because they can do it. If I can jump, if I can do some stuff, I will do it.”
To Monfils, that is not messing around. In fact, he says it takes far more concentration to hit a trickshot. He only goes for them because he knows he can make them and by doing so, win the point. Is there more risk? Of course. But the Frenchman loves making one of those shots and seeing the raw emotion on faces in the crowd. He feels a great connection with fans.
“The public feels his sensitivity,” Warmoes said. “And Gaël likes to share his emotions.”
It is important to remember that Monfils is not just a showman, but one of the best players of his generation. Only one other Frenchman, Richard Gasquet, has earned more tour-level wins since records have been kept. Monfils has spent less than four months outside the world’s Top 100 since first breaking into the elite group 17 years ago as an 18-year-old.
“They see you and think that, 'You’re not doing this, you’re not doing that.' But actually, you’re doing much better than those people say,” Monfils said. “The best of our sport, when we’re Top 100, to be ranked No. 100… there are only 99 people in front of you in the world. People sometimes forget how many people play tennis. We are blessed to have a big sport. Everybody is playing tennis, everybody is wishing to be there.
“When you see No. 99 in the world, pay big respect to this guy. Even Top 20 [players], sometimes they’re talking [about them]. We’re doing what we do and [it is] always [about] the ‘If’... I always say, if I could win 20 Slams, no worries, I would have won 20 Slams.”
None of this means that Monfils is not trying his best every day in pursuit of tennis’ pinnacle. “I’m working quite hard. I never hide. It’s [happened] less and less, but people used to say [what] I could have done. I’d say, ‘Please, come with me on the court.’ I’m quite open,” Monfils said.
What the 11-time ATP Tour titlist feels people miss is that no matter how hard he works, it does not guarantee he will win every match. But whether it is Tuesday against Djokovic in Madrid or any opponent in the coming weeks and months, that does not mean he will not try. What is certain, though, is that the Frenchman will not take any of this experience for granted. This is his dream turned reality.
“I’m blessed and I’m happy. My dream was always to be on the top of my game. I made it. I think I’m still making it and if with my new dreams, maybe before the end of my career, why not put my name on the top of the top, to have a Slam?” Monfils said. “I’m going to play for that and that’s it.
“But the big picture is that my dream was to be here today.”