In 1983, Yannick Noah beat defending champion Mats Wilander 6-2, 7-5, 7-6(7-3) to win the French Open title, becoming the first Frenchman to win the title since Marcel Bernard in 1946.
Since Noah’s title in ’83, a new streak has begun.
No Frenchman has won the crown on their home soil in the 32 years since. In fact, a player from France hasn’t even reached the final since 1988, when Henri Laconte lost to the aforementioned Wilander.
There is no shortage of talent coming out of France, with five Frenchman currently residing inside the top 30 on the ATP Tour. One of those players, 15th-ranked Gael Monfils, is as perplexing as they come on the Tour, but is someone who could snap the French drought at Roland Garros this year.
The 28-year-old has talent that is undeniable. As a junior, he reached the world number one ranking in February 2004. He would go on to win junior titles at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon before turning pro.
Combining power, length and athleticism, Monfils quickly made himself a known commodity on the ATP Tour. He climbed nearly 200 spots in the ATP Men’s Singles Rankings during the 2005 campaign and found himself in the Top 50 and hasn’t looked back since.
The knock on Monfils has never been about his skill level, but rather, his flamboyant and sometimes lackadaisical approach to the sport. He is an exception to the rule in almost any aspect of the sport. Monfils doesn’t employ a coach, and while his opponents are hydrating with water and other energy drinks, Monfils sips from his Coke can.
He takes a unique mindset to the court every time he plays.
”For me, tennis is a sport, you know … it’s not a job, it’s a sport,” he said in a post-match interview during last year’s U.S. Open. “Sometimes, if I’m fed up with that, just leave it. For me, I don’t know if it’s bad to say it and for sure I will use like bad words in English.”
Because of his carefree, laid back style to a sport that many view as anything but, Monfils has endeared himself to the casual fan and is a must-watch whenever he is playing. If you go through YouTube, you can sift through countless videos of his trick shots and through-the-legs returns.
“Nobody is more fun to watch than this Frenchman,” wrote Time Magazine columnist Bill Sapparito. “Because nobody can combine such pure athleticism with the insouciance bordering on disdain he brings to the game.”
The same attributes that make him a fan-favorite also drive folks crazy, because oftentimes, it seems Monfils is out there to entertain and not necessarily to win. His evaporating focus has driven him to a couple of bad losses, most notably his quarterfinal loss to Roger Federer at last year’s U.S. Open, where he fumbled away a two sets to none lead.
Monfils has had a successful start to the clay court season, which bodes well for a potential deep run at this year’s French Open. He says he often has a tough time adjusting from hard courts to clay.
A good showing at the 2015 French Open would go a long way to silencing his critics. He has been a semifinalist at the tournament before, back in 2008.
“I always have trouble adapting to clay quickly, so it’s always a strange period of the year for me here,” said Monfils. “I always hope I can play those tournaments well. But often, I end up losing. I don’t seem to be able to play my best tennis. I often get injured during those six weeks, so maybe this is what is different this year.”
In April, he reached the semifinals in Monte Carlo, knocking off Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov, before losing to Tomas Berdych in the final four, and says he feels healthy and strong which usually isn’t the case for him this time of year.
In order for Monfils to break through and make a true impact on the ATP Tour, he needs to capture a major championship. In any sport, the monkey on one’s back usually stays there until they win it all, and will continue to remain on the back of Gael Monfils, as long as he shows signs of promise without results.
If the charismatic Frenchman can harness his focus and grow a disdain for losing, a major championship might not be that far away. French tennis fans are hoping that goal is within reach in late May, where they have been waiting more than three decades for one of their own to hoist La Coupe des Mousquetaires (English translation: The Musketeers' Trophy) on the red clay of Roland Garros.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org