As Gaël Monfils told it Tuesday on his Twitch channel, the doubt came on like a tidal wave as soon as the points began to count in Vienna Monday.
“Before Vienna, I trained a lot with Matteo Martineau. So when I got there, I said to myself, ‘You had two weeks to train. You played well in training.’ “
“I got there, played a set with (Borna) Coric. Tore him up.”
“Okay, not bad.”
“The night before, I played with (Hubert) Hurkacz. Won the set. They were the first sets I won (since the end of the shutdown).”
“In the morning, I warmed up with (Andrey) Rublev. HItting well. No problem on the serve. I get to the match … Mentally – I don’t know why – I was tight. I changed my serve a bit. … So tight, so tight … Blocked again.”
“I told my coaches, ‘It’s crazy. Two weeks of training hard. Lots of physical, too. And I couldn’t make it.’ The spiral was really negative. So I had to cut (the season).”
But first, a shutout to the journos
Before Monfils began his livestream, he made a point of mentioning that he had already spoken to the journalists beforehand.
He was well aware of the fact that a lot of the writers he deals with have been unable to make a living both during the shutdown – and beyond, as travel is a huge challenge.
And he thanked them for agreeing to ask some questions in an open forum – knowing that many other people were watching and would Tweet whatever he said, before the journalists could even write their stories.
(If only some of the tournaments showed that much courtesy).
He also encouraged everyone to seek out their work.
No retirement – just reload/refresh
When Monfils announced Monday night that he’d be doing a live press conference on his Twitch channel Wednesday, his many fans thought the worst.
Since the return to play after the shutdown because of COVID-19, he hadn’t won a match. He was open about the fact that he was struggling. In the first two matches he was playing a couple of confident opponents, which didn’t help. But he thought if he got to Paris, he could find the wherewithal to at least win his first match.
But he couldn’t do it.
Monfils had planned to play the tournaments in Cologne, Germany. But he withdrew.
And then, during his first-round match against Pablo Carreño Busta in Vienna, after taking a medical timeout to have his shoulder worked on, he retired after 39 minutes.
But the good news is that no, he’s not retiring.
Just the opposite.
He’s talking about playing until he’s 40, and go to Roger Federer for some tips.
But not before he takes a break.
In mid-November, he’ll get back at it as hard as ever.
Doubt and second-guessing
There’s a reason why Monfils is so – well, the proper word is in French. It’s “attachant”. It means that he just gets to you; if you’ve ever met or talked to him – even if you haven’t – you can’t help but appreciate the guy.
He’s an open book.
During the Twitch session, in which he bantered back and forth in a mostly informal way with several French tennis journalists (one of them hogged 90% of the oxygen), he laid it out.
“When you want it too much, want to do well SO badly … when I’m too demanding on myself, that’s when I get tight,” he said. “I make a mistake, I want to fix it right away. And because I played so well to start the season, I wanted to keep playing well.”
And that’s when all the negative thoughts began to creep in. “I didn’t miss that at the start of the year,” he would think when he made an unforced error. “I didn’t double fault at the start of the year,” he’d rail to himself.
Monfils said that he could go out right then and there, serve a basket of balls even with a sore shoulder, and maybe miss … five. “Yesterday, I made 25 double faults,” he said (he made seven , but it probably felt like 25).
The first one came in his very first service game.
“To tell you what was in my head, I was telling myself, ‘I’ll do a slice. It’s easier.’ Then … “Gaël, DON’T DOUBLE FAULT. And I … double faulted. Missed by six metres. So I thought, ‘Oh hey, good start...’
“And with an opponent who’s No. 18 in the world and can really play. So you get tight on everything. It’s a vicious circle, ” he added.
“I hurt myself because of the tension. I wanted to adjust, adapt the body to the internal tension. But when you try to compensate too much, the body breaks,” he said.
Goal in 2020 was top five
Monfils said his goal going into 2020 was to be No. 5 in the world.
Not that he’d get there, but that was his goal. He wanted to show he could play back-to-back tournaments, often a knock on him. He wanted to see what he had to give in the biggest events.
In February he won Montpellier, beating Canadian Vasek Pospisil in the final. And then he won Rotterdam, beating another Canadian – Félix Auger-Aliassime – in that final. The only set he lost during those two weeks was the first one he played.
After a week off he made the semifinals in Dubai, and came within a hair of beating Novak Djokovic in straight sets before succumbing 6-1 in the third.
And then, the shutdown.
“The quarantine killed me”
“I came back, without having a lot of confidence. I think it hurt me a lot. I’m sure it did. I just wasn’t able to adjust, to make the right choices on my return,” Monfils said. “A big negative spiral – and a big lack of confidence.”
Monfils remembered vividly every time he had lost three first rounds in a row (technically, this streak of futility is three, as the Vienna match was a retirement).
In 2018 (he said 2017, but got everything else right), he lost to Kei Nishikori at the US Open, retiring with injury. Then he went to Asia and won a Challenger. Then, he correctly remembered losing to Lloyd Harris in Chengdu, Fernando Verdasco in Beijing and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Shanghai.
Those were all three-setters, though – nothing like this last part of 2020. And he bounced back right afterwards and reached the Antwerp final.
He remembered that woeful period in 2007 when he lost three straight first rounds (all 6-3 or 7-5 in the third), won a Challenger in Florida – and then lost four more first rounds. One of those was a retirement at 0-6, 0-2 to Radek Stepanek in Monte Carlo.
Monfils said it’s happened to a few players this year – he mentioned Richard Gasquet, David Goffin and Denis Shapovalov.
But he said it doesn’t matter how bad the slump is, how long it lasts. The most important thing is to pull the plug when the spiral begins – which is actually what Shapovalov did, as Monfils mentioned he’d already heard the Canadian was withdrawing from the Paris Masters.
A little “me” time, then back to work
Monfils said he was obsessing about coming back and playing well. Now – he’s going play whatever other sports he can, because he’s smelling another lockdown coming. Basketball, padel – some time on Twitch “if Elina allows it, because she’s the toughest,” he joked.
Take some time to breathe, spend quality time with his better half and then start training full-out in November.
“Mentally, I’m not 100 per cent. You know how to play tennis, you train, but it’s mental. You want that feeling, that mental security. When you don’t have it, you fail a lot more,” he said.
He’ll get back to working with his mental coach, working on visualizing things, being positive. And do a lot of physical work to build the base for the season that’s key for him.
Odds and ends
On young Frenchman Hugo Gaston:
“My worry always: you have to let him mature. He’s only 20. He plays very well. But you (journalists) shouldn’t burn him out, because a lot of other young players who also are playing well are better-ranked at the moment.
“He came up big in the right arena. But even he knows he has a long way to go before you “over-mediatize” him. You raise him too high. I think people realize that he did a great Roland Garros. He’s No. 159; he has to rise more. If he loses matches I hope you don’t drag him back down.”
La Monf’ on Nadal:
“They might have to change the name of the tournament and the surface – call it ‘Nadal clay’ “
“On clay, we’re not all equal. Rafa was blessed by the Lord. People don’t realize. He’s a good golfer. He can play soccer. Whatever you play, he’s a monster,” he said. “He has … something extra. Like other people have in other things, he has it in sports.”
“He’s superhuman. Mentally, I’m not as strong as him. I know there are things that affect me more, and I have trouble performing. And you see that he is …rock solid. That’s the difference between a legend and a good tennis player.”
On the lack of fans:
“It’s the end of the season, so I can say it. It pisses me off. I love the fans, and even if we’re in sad state, the fans lift you, propel you, put you in a completely different mindset.
“(Monday) I wanted to stop a lot earlier against Carreño Busta. At 4-4, I said to my coach, ‘I think I’m done’. But even if it’s not good, you try (because of the fans). Then I realized I really couldn’t serve.”
Monfils on the Big Three:
“They’re fairly discreet in all aspects. And it’s fine. It makes them a little mysterious. They each work in their own way; they have three distinctly different ways of working, and it’s cool to watch
“There’s not the Rafa way, the Djokovic way, or the Roger way. But it’s fun to see them work physically, on the tennis, how many hours they put in.
“The three maniacs. The three legends of our sport.”
On a November arrival in Oz:
Monfils said the players don’t know much more than the journalists do. They hear the things about the hotels with tennis courts, and about Tennis Australia trying to negotiate for the players to be able to train during the mandatory 14-day quarantine.
They hear a lot of things. But they don’t have anything concrete.
Monfils also said that two weeks ago, his agent contacted them to suggest that he arrive early – like the end of November – and do the preseason Down Under. “We haven’t received an answer to that. Hopefully, we’ll hear from them.”
Monfils on playing to 40:
“I’m clear about this – I want to play until 40 – or at least 38, to go to the Paris Olympics. I think I can, but I just have to find the right schedule, look at what Roger does, Novak. He and I are only a few months apart.
“I think I will have some great years left, if I put everything on my side.”
On having kids, and perspective:
Monfils said that what Murray is doing right now is exceptional, and that Stan Wawrinka won three Grand Slams during the greatest era in history.
“Stan has a kid. Andy has three. I don’t have kids yet. My girlfriend will still play for quite awhile, so I have a lot of time, too,” he laughed. “I have a different dynamic than those two, because I was injured a lot when I was young. I had some air holes. It’s annoying to be injured, but it gives you moments where you live your life.”
On being “physically fragile”:
“Yes, but for the last few years I’ve found a better tempo. The last years I’ve been around the top 10. No long-term injuries; just a few nicks,” he said. “I played differently. I realized that I played better on hard courts, so I played less on clay. Also, I did some things with a little less intensity – adjusted my program a bit.”
On journalists and humanity:
“Often I was pigeonholed – I didn’t train. I had too many distractions. And I played basketball, poker, Playstation. I stayed up too late. At 20, I accepted that. At 34, a little less. Sometimes I think it’s hard for you to relay it. You see me and think, ‘He’s sad. He’s not hurt.’ It’s complicated.
“Even once in awhile if you’re tough on me, I deserve it. The only thing, is to watch out for the human inside. We don’t know each other well, so you have to be careful. You can hurt without meaning to,” he said. “I think of my family, who watch and read you. But when I’m good, you write that, too.
“I’m not 20 any more. I do things better now.”
Monfils on the “pandemic rankings”:
“There’s a lot about it that’s a bit false. I’ve played poorly, but with the real ranking I’d still be around No. 10. Lots of guys who haven’t played, or played a lot less well than last year, haven’t dropped.
“I never passed (Matteo) Berrettini this year. Roger (Federer) played the Australian Open, and that’s it – and he’ll come back in 2021 at No. 4 in the world,” he laughed. (Bianca) Andreescu didn’t play a match this year. And she’s No. 7.”