NEW YORK -- Tuesday play kicked off early at the 2014 U.S. Open. To be precise, at 12:00 a.m. Milos Raonic of Canada and Kei Nishikori of Japan were midway through their battle when the clock struck midnight. It was, as one fan put it, akin to dueling cover bands performing Sampras and Agassi. Raonic, a potent server, played the role of Sampras; Nishikori, the modestly-sized returner, played Agassi. Deep in the infomercial hours, Agassi, er Nihikori, ended up winning in five sets.
A few hours later, the Tuesday session began in proper. Belinda Bencic, the ascendant Swiss teenager, took the court. (She acted her age, unfortunately, and lost to Peng Shuai.) Kimiko Date-Krumm was in action as well. A few weeks from now, she turns 44. She was practicing for her quarterfinal doubles match on Wednesday. This is a core strength of tennis. What other sport accommodates such a wide range of ages, nationalities, and body sizes?
Tennis can also entertain a broad swath of styles. And for all the fans and broadcasters lamenting the monoculture -- the big hitting, net-avoiding, grunting, mechanical brutes -- there’s counterprogramming in the personage of Gael Monfils.
The Frenchman, who turned 28 yesterday, might be the greatest natural athlete in tennis. Ever. And if that sounds like so much hyperbole, well, try and name another. Monfils is supernaturally fast and quick and flexible and can leap buildings in single bounds. And he knows it. As such, he relishes his role as tennis’ answer to a Harlem Globetrotter. A match is an occasion to entertain -- with a sporting event tacked on. He seldom settles for the conventional shot when the baroque is an option. If Gilles Simon, another Frenchman in action on Tuesday, is often described as a minimalist, Gael Monfils is a tennis maximalist. There are more bells and whistles than a Christmas Day parade. He is a GIF personified. This shot from last week says it all.
Slight problem: in tennis, there are no Washington Generals, no opponents that double straight men, that lay down in the face of fun and frivolity. You wouldn’t call Monfils a career underachiever. But he’s never been in a Slam final, much less won a major title. His career-high ranking is seven, and he came into the U.S. Open ranked in the suburbs of 24. When Monfils is in performance mode and it comes at the expense of winning, he veers dangerously close to “clown” territory.
But when he is on -- marrying his style with a little substance -- the results are dazzling. Such is the case here. Monfils has yet to lose a set and is playing, by his own reckoning, the best tennis of his career. On Tuesday, he shimmied past Grigor Dimitrov, 7-5, 7-6, 7-5. He turned defense into offense. He served well. Even after a second set hiccup, he recovered, staved off a set point, and stole a tiebreaker. Monfils is into the quarterfinals, and the extended run goes on.
Before pondering whether LeMonf has finally tamed his show stopping instincts, we shouldn’t get too carried away. In Monfils’ defeat of Maximo Gonzalez, commentators praised his “new maturity.” Really? Apart from the afore-linked trick shot, he committed 43 unforced errors and double-faulted 10 times in three sets. On Tuesday, he tanked a game and chatted with friends in his box and, well, entertained. This isn’t exactly the second coming of Chris Evert.
But he is more measured. And when asked about this recent surge the other day, Monfils assured that apart from the winning results, not much had changed.
“I think I’m the same. You don’t understand why, but I understand,” he said. “I’m cool. As usual. Still the same. Hanging around. No coach. I’m happy.”
So are we all.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Has Roger Federer lost so much baby fat in recent years that he looks positively gaunt? He remains listed at 187 pounds, but I wonder when I see photos from early years showing a plump-faced kid with an average physique. Is he like some comic book mutant, where his body has so completely morphed itself into a pair of calves and a right forearm that nothing else matters? No concern, only curiosity.
-- Randy Burgess
• Interesting. Tennis Channel has been showing a lot of Federer’s matches here from 2004-2008, and I noticed how little he changed physically. I’m sure you’re right at some level: whose weight doesn’t shift between the ages of 23 and 33? But I would also caution not the take the “weight listing” too seriously. This isn’t exactly the NFL combine. Players submit that weight and it can remain on their bio for years without their getting on a scale.
Is this going to be the best week of Krunic's career or did Krunic just "announce her presence with authority"?
• Is “somewhere is between” an option? Krunic is way too talented to be ranked outside the top 100. And she won’t be after next week, thanks to her stirring play at the U.S. Open. But we see a lot of players making a deep run in a major and then regress to the mean. Think of her like the 2014 version of Camila Giorgi. Strong play at the U.S. Open precluded her qualifying, but she simply settled into being a creditable top 50 pro.
I watched the last two sets of the Nick Kyrgios-Tommy Robredo match and thought Robredo played a terrific brain game. It got me wondering about Kyrgios, though. I'm sensing the next Marat Safin (if he's lucky). Is he too unstable to have a stable career?
-- Susannah, Edmonton, AB
• What about this comparison: Kyrgios is like the ATP’s answer to Madison Keys. Tons of game and tons of power. An appealing personality. (Though Madison Keys, unlike Kyrgios, has too much taste to wear pink Beats.) But they still need to figure out how to alchemize all that power and potential. Against Robredo, Kyrgios was clearly the superior player, vastly more powerful and athletic. But it was a classic case of a veteran bringing his veteran-ness to bear and a rookie not knowing how to close a match.
• If you missed Tennis Channel’s documentary on Arthur Ashe on Sunday, watch for the re-air. Trust me.
• Here’s an academic paper on match fixing on tennis.
• Ivan Himanen is at it again for LLS, and this time the names almost match: Margaret (Smith) Court and Maggie Smith.