History hates nothing more than a crown unworn, a throne unseated, a title unearned. The history of Gael Monfils is no different. In 2004, he shocked the French tennisocracy by winning first 3 of the 4 junior majors, and stood on the precipice of doing something that hadn't been done since Stefan Edberg won the very first junior calendar grand slam of the open era in 1983. He was the pearl that French tennis had awaited for years. Though other Gallic juniors like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet had been more heavily touted, it was Monfils, formerly bespectacled, spindly and awkward, that emerged as the closest thing, to a sure thing, to end the French drought at the professional majors. And though the strength of his game resembled the same qualities that characterize his professional exploits (the super hero speed and stretching, the fantastical trick shots, the unadulterated athleticism) there would have been those who still wondered if this weren't another mirage in the, then 20 year desert, of french men's tennis.
Those doubts, whispered by the most pessimistic, weren't doused by his quarterfinal loss of a match, and a shot at history, in the Boys Singles draw of the 2004 US Open: in fact they were given a loud and undeniable voice. His absence from the final, contested by Sergiy Stahkovsky and Andy Murray, a pair who would carry on a different kind of tete a tete this year following Indian Wells, was all but forgotten when he began a full time career on the ATP tour. Launching himself into the top 50 with victories at 2 challengers and a full ATP event in Sopot, he was overshadowed only by the player that French tennistas have always truly believed to be the rightful heir to the legacy of Les Mousquetaires. In fact Gasquet may have done him a favor by beating Roger Federer in Monte Carlo, putting the "bleu, blanc et rouge" bullseye at Roland Garros squarely on his back, where it didn't belong. Monfils has actually had the most consistent results of all his contemporary countrymen at their home major, (if not the best, with Tsonga reaching one more semifinal).
But since that early promise, despite remaining one of, if not the most, athletic player(s) in the game today, and the evolution of the game making raw athleticism more and more of a common trait (if not distinguishing), Monfils has not translated that into commensurate success at the highest echelons of the game. I have always suspected that while every other part of his body screams exceptional, the most critical tools in his tennis kit remain curiously ordinary: his hands. While Simon uses his to swash, Gasquet uses his to swashbuckle and Tsonga uses his to simply buckle, Monfils' hands, hardly the most sophisticated in the world, form the basis of little more than a human backboard. No shot seems out of his reach, unless he decides otherwise, and it's a considerable reach.
But the hands have failed him from time to time: the inability to handle the short slice, the tendency to receded further and further into the backcourt, and the almost psychological dependence on his athleticism to entertain (and not necessarily to win), have all belied the very profligacy of talent that coaches and the tennis punditry has bemoaned. Darren Cahill once claimed that Monfils would, from time to time, skip a (second and) afternoon practice with his coach, Roger Rasheed, claiming he need a rest, only to find him later in his room hotel room hootin' and hollerin' while working up a sweat playing FIFA soccer on the playstation. So perhaps something within him realized that there was a limit to how far he needed to develop himself physically (Rasheed's specialty), when the most critical tool available to him (his hands) remained unaddressed.
Maybe he knew something that we didn't?
This week, after having hired his Swedish coach Mikael Tillstrom in October of last year, worked on simplifying his game, and more specifically the technique on his serve, the Gael Monfils taking the court today in his second successive final (if 5 years after the first), has shorn his infamous locks, and some of the more elaborate machinations that have frustrated his least loyal fans. The gale force wind at his back may be the new and improved serve, imperceptibly more rhythmic, but palpably more effective, has elicited only 2/3rd as many aces (42) as his infamous serving opponent (66). He will need all the free points he can get to reduce his burden of proof that Karlovic might not get through a WTA field would it were not for that monstrosity of a first serve.
The jury is not out on either of their careers today, but the perceived quality of the final, will be largely dependent on the extent to which an entertainer can get down to business and mitigate the reputation (at least) of a 5-19 record in ATP finals.