“I’m just myself on the court.”
For someone with such an extravagant playing style Gael Monfils responds to the narrative that paints him as tennis’ showman with ironic simplicity.
His repertoire boasts every shot in the book including a few of his own addition. Throw in his instinctive improvisation, phenomenal athleticism, and distinct brand of French flair and Monfils is basically a human highlight reel.
“Some people translate it as being a showman and some people translate it as being natural on the court,” the Frenchman told Sport360, happy to let everyone decide for themselves.
He’s been in the sport nearly 15 years but Monfils’ game remains physically demanding. He covers the entire court remarkably, reaching seemingly impossible shots with a trademark slide across the surface that’s earned him the moniker “Sliderman”.
And even at 33, Monfils shows no inclination to curb his natural game – news that will no doubt be well received by the spectators at the 12th edition of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
Having made his first appearance at the tournament last year, the World No10 is excited to return for the latest installment running from 19-21 December at Abu Dhabi’s International Tennis Centre in Zayed Sports City.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’ve only played there once and it was a great experience,” Monfils said.
Following a hectic last season, he views Mubadala as the ideal platform to kick-start the new campaign.
“This competition is great because you play against the best players in the world in a match environment and that’s perfect to make some adjustments. It’s definitely a great moment and a great opportunity to adjust yourself and see where you’re at.”
Mubadala has continued to attract the biggest names in tennis and World No1 Rafael Nadal and No2 Novak Djokovic lead a stellar field for this year’s competition.
“I think everybody knows the field is very strong. We’re talking about the best players on the planet. It’s an unbelievable field and I’m just blessed to be a part of it this year,” Monfils said in anticipation of some fierce battles ahead.
Of course, competing against the very best is common practice for the Parisian whose career has coincided with those of Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
Rather than rue the emergence and subsequent dominance of the ‘Big Three’, Monfils feels fortunate to be part of tennis’ “best generation”.
“I’m very lucky to have played with them. That’s for sure. It’s the best generation of tennis we’ve ever had. It’s such an honour and blessing to be part of that. To compete against those legends is just something amazing.”
But with each passing year the inevitable end draws nearer for the golden generation, making way for a new cluster of stars to shine in their place.
Monfils faces one such individual in 21-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas when the two occupy opposite ends of the court for the Mubadala opener. He insists, however, that the World No6 is just one of many emerging young stars with Daniil Medvedev and Hyeon Chung (both 23) also featuring at the tournament.
“All of them are unbelievable. They’ve improved really fast and I’m a big fan of them. They all play unbelievable tennis. I won’t say I prefer one to another because I think all of them are pure talent.”
Monfils has never been short of that commodity either. In school he excelled at several sports and won the French under-13 and under-14 100m championships. His coach even stated Monfils could have made the Olympic 100m final had he pursued a career as a sprinter.
“I’m not sure I would’ve been a professional,” he says while entertaining a hypothetical alternative career in sport. “I loved football, basketball, and track and field. Surely, I would’ve tried another sport but to be professional is another story.”
As things stand though, Monfils has his hands full with tennis. The past season was his best ever on the ATP Tour and saw him finish in the top 10 but he also played more tournaments than he ever had in previous campaigns.
His girlfriend and WTA player Elina Svitolina even stated recently that he gets no holidays and even during his stay in Abu Dhabi, Monfils is all business.
“Well, it’s not really my plan to have a rest. To be honest, I’m excited to start working, even though I’ve already started working on my pre-season to make some changes so I’m stronger for next year.”
And the year ahead promises to be another stellar one for the enigmatic star who remains dedicated to honing his craft and has his sights set on getting even closer to the top of the pile.
“I want to explore some parts I’ve never been. To be in the top five (rankings) would be pretty amazing if I can reach that next season.”
It’s a lofty target but one well within reach for the driven Monfils. It’s with a serious tone that he embarks on this new challenge that begins at Mubadala. But make no mistake, the expansive plays, slides, ‘slam-dunks’ and every other thrilling aspect of his game will remain.
His very nature guarantees it, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
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