NEW YORK – Holding a two-set lead and with a trip to his third-ever U.S. Open quarterfinals within reach on Sunday, Gael Monfils decided he needed to tie his shoe. So he bent over and quickly adjusted his lace.
He did this in the middle of a point.
As Monfils attempted to tie his shoe, Marcos Baghdatis was getting set to smash a short Monfils lob on a bounce—on triple-game point in the first game of the third set. As if remembering there was a point happening, Monfils quickly stood up, faked a move left and darted right as Baghdatis struck a crosscourt forehand, which landed well within the Frenchman’s reach. But Monfils didn’t strike it cleanly, and his forehand effort bounced in front of the net.
“To be honest, I have no idea what happened,” Monfils said after the match. “Sometimes those points don’t mean anything for me.”
It was vintage Monfils: electrifying yet frustrating, improvisational but self-sabotaging. He’s a player whose game seems to have its own sense of humor. Yet despite his mistimed shoelace snafu, Monfils is in the U.S. Open quarterfinals for the third time in his career after beating Baghdatis 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.
Monfils’s penchant for the theatrical is what endears him to so many tennis fans, and it’s been on full display throughout this U.S. Open. His panache—signature acrobatic flying smashes, daring trick shots and excellent court coverage—sometimes seem better suited for Mario Tennis than the modern ATP tour. It’s extraordinarily compelling to watch, but it’s also what makes him so infuriating. Monfils’s immense talent has awed us for years, but to what end? He has six career titles. He’s reached one Grand Slam semifinal, the 2008 French Open. (For perspective, at that time, Novak Djokovic had just won his first Slam a few months earlier in Melbourne.)
Monfils was just a point away from the U.S. Open semifinals two years ago, but Roger Federer saved two match points in the fourth set and won in five. Making the loss even more crushing was that Monfils held a two-set lead. The narrative surrounding Monfils’s career—that he’s a talented player who doesn’t have the drive or focus to reach the top—didn’t budge.
But Monfils, who turned 30 on Thursday, is having one of his best seasons ever. It started last October, when he hired Swede Mikael Tillstrom, a former world No. 39, to be his coach.
“I have good work with him,” Monfils said last month. “He’s changing for sure a lot of stuff, as you can see.”
Whatever Tillstrom is doing seems to be working. Monfils made the quarterfinal of the Australian Open in January, falling to Milos Raonic in four sets. He played well leading up to the French Open, making the final in Monte Carlo, but he was forced to withdraw from Roland Garros on the eve of the tournament due to a virus. Then in Washington, D.C., in July, he came back to beat Ivo Karlovic in three sets to win the Citi Open—the most prestigious title of his 12-year career and his first since February 2014. Entering the match, he had lost eight of his last nine finals.
“I was happy to catch it,” Monfils said of his Citi Open title. “But I think I was still on a good trip here before, before I got this virus. For sure it's been a good accomplishment for me, but to be honest I was I think in the right track I think [since] the first of January of this year.”
And now he’s reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open without dropping a set. He’s set to face French compatriot Lucas Pouille, who upset Rafael Nadal in a thrilling five–set match on Sunday. It’s a bit of a break for Monfils, who is 2-12 against Nadal all-time. Pouille and Monfils have played just once—at the 2015 Australian Open, when Monfils earned a five-set victory over Pouille, who was a wildcard.
“[Monfils is] in very good form. He has won so many matches for the last two months. He's very confident. He hasn't lost a set, so I know it's going to be hard,” Pouille, 22, said. “But I'm playing well. I have good feelings on the court, so we'll see. I think it's going to be a tough match for me, but for him as well.”
Monfils will face his toughest test of the tournament so far on Tuesday against Pouille. It’s a test that could go a long way toward redefining Monfils’s career. But even though he avoids playing Nadal, Tuesday’s match won’t be easy. If Pouille’s marathon fourth-round match is any indication, the young Frenchman won’t be unnerved by much: He was unfazed by the tense atmosphere of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the aura of 14-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal and an intensely competitive match against one of the greatest players ever.
It remains to be seen whether he’ll be fazed by an opponent willing to tie his shoe in the middle of a point.