Catching up on the latest from the Australian Open during a four-hour layover in Qatar was easier said than done for the author. (Andrew Lawrence/SI)
DOHA, Qatar -- Twelve hours ago I was at a JFK airport bar watching Lakers-Mavs over a pint of Harp, trying to drink in a bit of confidence before a near-7,000-mile flight to Doha. Three TV shows, one movie and half a Rick Ross album later, I'm in Allah's country and caffeinating not far from the first duty free shop I've visited with a Rolls Royce on offer, trying to get a handle on exactly what happened at Melbourne Park while I was both sleeping and not. The flight time and length is a personal best for me, and dammit if I'm stopping there. In another four hours I'll hop another 777 and spend the next 13 hours trying to convince myself that night is day, Thursday is Friday and that The Tourist is still thoroughly unwatchable. Wait -- I could totally cave on that last point. You can only reason with yourself but for so long when you're trapped at 35,000 feet.
Overall, I couldn't be more eager to reach Melbourne -- not so much for the prospect of a shower (I'm still a long way from cartoon squiggly lines; thanks Right Guard!). Really, I'm keen to see if I'll spy any familiar faces posted up at the check-in desk or at curbside. With the bracket narrowing and a few prominent bold-faced names already squeezed out of the field (Jelena Jankovic and Juan Martin del Petro, to name two), my odds of making awkward eye contact with a world-class tennis player just went up. And I wouldn't be surprised if that player was Gael Monfils. Yeah, he's got a 2-1 record against third-round opponent Stan Wawrinka, and yeah I did pick Stan as my early flameout (figuring recent news of his separation from his wife hadn't left him in the best headspace for tennis) -- but Monfils and I have a history of passing each other in the night. I'll explain:
Five months ago I was making my way home after a long day covering the U.S. Open. It must've been 1 in the morning when I arrived at Penn Station after taking the LIRR from Flushing. I caught a cab right in front of MSG and kibitzed with the driver, who made me feel right at home by starting our chat the way my mother might have: "What are you doing out so late, Boss?"
Shopping list for the duty free store at the Doha airport: Chocolate? Check. Liquor? Check. Rolls Royce? Only in Qatar. (Andrew Lawrence/SI)
Been watching the tennis, I said. Lost track of time, I guess.
"That's funny. I just came from out there," he said. "Dropped of one of the players at the airport. Real tall, black guy. Had a lot of baggage."
No way, I said. (Irony alert, I thought.)
"Yeah, French guy. Real nice guy. I can't remember his name, but he was with another guy. White guy. Both real nice."
Gael? Gael Monfils, maybe he said his name was?
"I don't know, but he took a picture with me. I got it on my phone."
Sure enough, as we're screaming down Broadway, past the Flatiron Building, he digs his phone out of his jeans and flips it open, alighting a picture of him and Monfils leaning against his cab outside JFK, Samsonite upon Samsonite cascading out of the trunk. His other passenger -- Roger Rasheed, Monfils' coach, or the guy who normally handles his baggage -- was nice enough to take the picture. Monfils, a beacon of teeth and hair and happiness, could not have appeared in better spirits.
Hard to believe that less than two hours before that picture was taken, I'd watched Monfils shrug, sigh and mope his way through a news conference after losing to Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. I thought Monfils had had a legit shot against Djokovic; dude was serving out of his mind, leading the tournament in aces and routinely serving in the 130s. But the starching winds at Ashe Stadium that day blew his game apart. He might be the only guy I cover in sports that I also cheer for; I was gutted for him. "The talent to play in the wind," a disconsolate Monfils observed afterward, "I don't have yet."
I was certain that loss would stay with him for a while, but after hearing my cabbie's story it cemented the legend of Monfils as that of a settler, not a striver -- the knock on him for ages. Win or lose, it seems Monfils' attitude is "Whatever. Life is good. I'll get another big match." Don't get me wrong, it's a great attitude, but one more suited for taking pictures with people than taking ones with trophies.
Compare that with Wawrinka, a guy who up until a few years ago was known as Roger Federer's charity case (Fed often teamed with Wawrinka on the doubles court to help Stan pay the bills) before surging into the top 15. What's more, he doesn't need the crowd at his back to play his best.your you