“The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.” – Will Smith
Throughout the course of history, every sport has encountered an immensely talented player destined to scale great heights, but who would perennially remain an underachiever. Commentators would gush in awe at his craftiness and predict for him to become one of the greatest players of all time. But the player’s career would eventually fizzle out and he would have to settle for mediocrity. Now and then he would spring up a surprise with a classy performance or two and the entire debate on his greatness would flare up again.
In basketball, that player would be someone like JR Smith. For cricket, Rohit Sharma used to be the kind of laughing-stock-of-the-town type of player, but he has resurrected his career over the last two months or so. Michael Owen could be the football archetype, as he failed to recapture the form that he displayed as a Liverpool player.
Think of tennis and Gael Monfils would be one of the first names to blitz through your mind. A precocious talent with all the attributes in the book required to make it to the summit of tennis, Monfils has been of tennis’s greatest mysteries, with nine years on the tour having produced meagre returns of four career titles and a lone Grand Slam semifinal appearance.
Monfils’s brilliance has been shown to the world but only in flashes, for Monfils is the type of player who can elicit oohs and aahs from the crowd for his brilliant play in one rally, and then cause the crowd to groan collectively at his atrocious shot selection during the next exchange.
The Monfils game
When you look at Monfils’s game, the Frenchman is blessed in almost every aspect. His game is built on the premise of defense. His 6’4” frame allows him to deliver serves in excess of 130 mph. Being the son of a football player also helps, as the word “power” has been deeply ingrained in Monfils’s mind. His chiselled body has the strength to generate enormous amounts of power – Monfils’s forehand has been clocked at a whopping 118 mph. That would equal the top speed of a Kawasaki Ninja!
Another asset in Monfils’s tennis repertoire is his flexibility and his ball-retrieval skills. He is one of the best retrievers of the ball, probably behind only Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The slide has been a hallmark of his game, even earning him the nickname “Sliderman.” Monfils also possesses great flexibility and athleticism which he uses effectively to chase down balls. These attributes make him one of the fittest and quite probably the quickest player on the tour. After a 2006 French Open loss to Monfils, James Blake in his post-match press conference said that Monfils was the ‘fastest man on the tour.’
The nimble-footed Monfils is also a tremendous player at the net, his subtle volleying skills a stark contrast to his powerful groundstrokes.
Considering all of this, what could possibly go wrong with Monfils’s game?
His strength is his undoing
Many of Monfils’s Grand Slam matches tend to extend to a fifth set, and this can be attributed to his hesitancy in finishing off a point. In many instances, Monfils sets up the point with a thunderous serve or a beautiful cross-court forehand only to hit the ball back into centre of the court, thus gifting his opponent a lifeline. The opponent then claws back into the rally, and eventually the match, and drags it into a gruelling fifth set, thus forcing Monfils to dig deep into his reserves and see the match through.
In contrast to Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, two players whose games have been modelled around defensive stroke-play and whose modus operandi is to wear down opponents, Monfils sometimes takes too long to go for the kill and allows the opponent to dictate play. As a result, Nadal and Murray are ranked in the top 10 of the ATP rankings while Monfils is languishing at the 31st spot.
Andy Murray summed all of this about the Frenchman in one sentence – “He almost enjoys running too much and almost likes you to dictate play.”
The recent past has seen Monfils’s career being bogged down by constant injuries, probably indicating that his body is not suited to the elastic style of tennis exhibited by him.
Absence of a game plan
In essence, Monfils’s tennis lacks a solid game plan, and the Frenchman is content with chasing down balls hit by his opponent, often having to hit off-balance, ridiculous shots that would make tennis aficionados irate. Monfils may have ample opportunities to close out the point which would eventually lead to him closing out the game, set and finally, the match, but his unwillingness to capitalize on those opportunities often leave him on the wrong side of the result at the end of the day.
A tennis announcer once remarked: “I think that he isn’t interested in playing tennis; I just think he quite likes running around the court and pulling off the impossible.”
Lack of guidance
If Monfils desires to go beyond the semifinal of a Slam, he has to develop a good game plan. Part of the onus for this would also lie on his coach. Through the course of his career, Monfils hasn’t had a good enough coach to guide him through the travails of a sportsman’s career, although it must be said his rebelliousness does not make him the best of students to coach. A no-nonsense person like Ivan Lendl would do a world of good for the Frenchman.
Monfils has always been a crowd favourite wherever he goes, enthralling the crowd with impossible strokes. “I’m more of an artist”, he once claimed in an interview. While being a fan favourite is important for a tennis player, Monfils has been accused of preferring “style” over “substance” during his tennis career. As a result of trying to please the crowd with some audacious shots, Monfils has ended up losing many a point through the course of his career, crucial points that would have a bearing on the outcome of the match.
Physical gifts and natural talent can only take you as far as the top 20s in the tennis world. To accomplish something greater, Monfils would have to rein in the showboating and focus on his work ethic and game plan. A lesson that he should have learnt long ago, but one that he refuses to, even today.