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The Natural

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Gael Monfils© Getty ImagesGael Monfils is one of 12 French players in the Top 100 of the South African Airways 2010 ATP Rankings.

Gael Monfils is perhaps the best athlete on the ATP World Tour. But can that athleticism be harnessed for the greater good?

Showtime and Gael Monfils is ready to go. His clothes are loud and flamboyant, his hair untamed. Tattoos dot his arms and his entire body glistens with sweat.

Game on and now he is dashing back and forth like Zorro slashing at the ball with his racquet as if it were a sword. Trouble on the far side line and Monfils has to fly across the court chasing a ball that was struck flat and hard. Arriving at the precise moment that the ball is about to bounce twice Monfils spatula hacks a forehand slice sending it like a boomerang back across the court.

Still, the problem is not solved. The ball is going one way and Monfils the other because he is sliding as if on a block of ice and not an abrasive slab of plexi-plave. Next challenge is a drop shot and Monfils punches turbo to get there on time and then he shovels the ball back across the net, yet again.

"Like a Harlem Globetrotter, he loves the show."

Clearly frustrated, his opponent commits the fatal mistake: he lobs. Monfils likes this. With shoulders turned, core primed and hips pumping leg across leg, he ignites and explodes high into the air. The smash is struck like a thunderbolt and upon returning to earth Monfils erupts with a roar that rattles the rafters. The crowd goes wild as Gael Monfils beats the hell out of his chest. Game over.

You would be forgiven for thinking that you were watching a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, but no, you are courtside and have just witnessed a single point in a match featuring arguably the game’s most athletic player.

Monfils' eyes are wide open and he is staring straight at me. He does not flinch and it feels like you are trapped into some kind of virtual eye lockdown. Satisfied, he releases the tension and begins in a voice so soft that it is barely audible.

“I needed a change,” begins the 22 year old from the east side of Paris. “In France, the coaches want everything perfect. They want copy, they want beautiful. That is not me.”

MonfilsUp until then Monfils went through coaches like the French tear through freshly baked baguettes, one right after another. Olivier Delaitre, coach for the French Federation of Tennis (FFT), was with Monfils through the juniors and early stages of the Futures. He thinks he knows why.

“Gael has always been determined and focused on his game,” begins Delaitre. “He was young and maybe made mistakes, but he was trying every day to move up, to learn something and to improve. In my opinion, that is why he changed so often his coach. He was always seeking something more.”

The French are not easily impressed with talented junior tennis players. They have had so many: Di Pasquale, Simon, Gasquet, and Tsonga. Patrice Dominguez, former technical director of the FFT, has seen them all. To him, Monfils was different.

“Of course, his physical ability was incredible, but he had the desire that made him stand out over the others. That was what impressed us at the time. And since then he has never let us down.”

Dominguez is standing courtside watching Monfils practise. It looked like any other point until Monfils struck a big inside-out forehand, sending his practice partner scrambling. Now Monfils is on the offence and fast approaching the net. Instantly, and without warning, he leaps like a panther over the net and spikes his partner’s shot into the court for a winner before the ball can cross the net. Dominguez lets out a smile as the other players stare in disbelief at the incredible display of raw athletic talent.

“Gael is a ball player,” says Dominguez. “He is simply a ball player. Like a Harlem Globetrotter, he loves the show. You know, sometimes he comes to play at Roland Garros with his friends and they don’t even know how to play tennis. But Gael does not care. He just loves to play the game. His enthusiasm attracts people.”

From his hairstyle to his shot selection to his customized car, Monfils wants to be different. He does not want to be compared to anyone. He just wants to be Gael Monfils. But he also wants something else, too: to be great. And in July of 2008 he could hear the clock starting to tick.

"He is not even close to where I want him to be. In two years time he will be a beast."

Roger Rasheed was in Australia when he got the call. It was right after Wimbledon and Monfils was on the other end asking him for help.“Gael, do you know what you are letting yourself in for, mate?” Rasheed said. “Are you sure that you are ready for this?”

Yes, he was sure. More sure than of anything else. “I wanted to be tougher,” Monfils admits. “I needed someone strong.”

What Rasheed wants, Rasheed gets and soon he had Monfils’ mind and body in overdrive. Years of training Lleyton Hewitt reinforced to him what it took to be great and now with his new charge, he had a new mission. Call it The Gael Monfils Project.

“He is not even close to where I want him to be,” Rasheed says. “In two years time he will be a beast. When we started I told him that he was Top 5 potential, but he needs to be able to play a full season. He has some incredible physical attributes, his length, and ability to stretch, and general elasticity. We have taken a lot of that sliding out of his game because if he is sliding that means he is in on the defence. Now, maybe he does it only one or two times per match.”

Monfils“I think it was a great improvement to have Roger on his side,” Dominguez says. “Roger is a tough guy in the practice session, and he has a lot of good exercises to channel Gael’s energy. But the most important thing is that Roger realised that for Gael to improve his game, Gael would have to improve his perception of the game.”

“First thing I said to him when I got off the plane is, 'From now on you stand here',” Rasheed says, pointing at the baseline. “If you look at his tennis before, he was just defensive. Can he win a Grand Slam defending? No. Can he win a Masters 1000? No. He has to play more offence. And he has the weapons to do that.”

While moulding the will, Rasheed had to be careful to not break Monfils’ warrior spirit. “It [style] is part of me,” Monfils claims. “When I am on the court, my style is my nature, my instinct. I love to run. When I am on the court, my parents always tell me that [my running] is a gift from God.”

Other players are taking notice of the improved Monfils. Close friend and countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is impressed. “Gael is more consistent now. Roger helped him structure his game well and showed him to move forward.”

“Roger has helped me to become more professional,” Monfils acknowledges. “He loves to work and he takes care of the details.”

On paper, it does not look an extraordinary result: Gael Monfils defeats Dennis Istomin 7-6, 7-6 in the first round of the Proton Malaysian Open. But what is not written down is that Monfils arrived in Kuala Lumpur just hours before he was set to play. No hotel, no sleep and no practice. Just a 27-minute warm-up.

He had the perfect excuse to lose, and who would say anything? Did he not just win Metz three days ago? But Monfils is in Malaysia and hungry for more. Clearly fatigued and suffering from jet lag, he is running on fumes. Still, he is scrapping for every ball, swooping around the court like a bird of prey. Just one problem: Istomin knows Monfils is not 100 per cent and he is gunning for an upset.

"My parents always tell me that it is a gift from God."

Though he is losing, Monfils is sticking to the game plan and attempting to control the baseline. Except on this day Istomin is painting the lines with every stroke. Monfils is down a break and Istomin has the first of two set points on his serve. It is gut-check time for Gael Monfils. He looks up at Rasheed, takes a few deep breaths and nods his head up and down.

He refuses to give in, there has been too much work, too much sacrifice, and he and Roger have invested too much to go down without a fight. Like Rocky Balboa, Monfils takes Istomin’s best punches and refuses to be knocked out. He heaves a forehand here, chops a slice there, all the while Istomin is ripping the ball side to side, jerking Monfils back and forth so much that he is earning frequent flyer miles.

MonfilsSomehow, Monfils breaks, but he is too tired to celebrate, instead he lifts his head up and looks to Rasheed. No words were spoken between the coach and player. There was no need, for the look that Monfils gave Rasheed said much more than any words could express.

Monfils’ last match of the 2009 season was a three-set thriller versus Novak Djokovic in the final of the BNP Paribas Masters, an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament in Bercy. Down a set and a break, he looked to have no chance, so well was Djokovic playing. Then Monfils dug deep and summoned up all of his fight, all of his determination and levelled the match. Monfils lost the match in a third set tie-break, but on this day he won the respect of all those who ever doubted his toughness.

In many ways, Monfils is France’s prodigal son. The special one forever favoured over the others because of his immense talent. But Monfils rebelled against the French method, and left the country. Might he return to Paris one day to hoist the Coupe de Mousquetaires high over his head, giving France the hero they so desperately seek? Patrice Dominguez thinks so. “I think that Gael will be our guy to bring France a
Grand Slam trophy,” Dominguez says.

For as long as he cares to remember, Monfils has had to listen to people tell him how talented he is and how many opportunities he has been given. All that just piled on the pressure and raised expectations to unrealistic levels. Now, they are saying something different about him. They are saying how tough he has become and that now there is plenty of substance to back up the showmanship. Monfils like this.

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