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Gael Monfils recognises that his comeback in 2023 was not even the most impressive in his household. At 37, the Frenchman became the oldest winner on the ATP Tour since Roger Federer when he lifted the title in Stockholm in October. And, if few players in tennis could match his longevity as he approaches his 20th year as a professional, there are even fewer who come close to his enduring popularity and status as one of the sport’s great entertainers.
If becoming a father changed him and sparked a renaissance, the birth of his daughter Skai also led to what was actually the greatest comeback staged in tennis this year: that of Elina Svitolina, Monfils’ wife and the mother of his first child, returning from giving birth and reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon in July. Svitolina was named the WTA’s comeback player of the year; Monfils could yet win the equivalent award handed out by the ATP.
Family and teamwork played key roles in their respective successes, as Monfils and Svitolina balance careers and goals with the responsibility of being parents. “We both understand the sacrifices and push each other in the best way,” he says. When Monfils is playing, Svitolina’s focus is on their baby. When Svitolina is playing, it is Monfils’ turn – such as during her run to the Wimbledon semi-finals.
There is a different dynamic to their tennis careers now, yet it has allowed Monfils to continue doing what he loves – even if, at 37, he cannot believe he still is. “It’s just crazy to be honest, just crazy, to actually still be playing,” he says. His family have pushed him to stay around but for Monfils, it is the fun on the court that keeps him there. “You know, I enjoy myself even more now,” Monfils adds. “I have nothing to prove.”
Parenthood has helped to grant him perspective, too. If Monfils’ career was full of spectacular shots and must-see highlights, it fell short of the biggest titles – though, in the era of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, he can hardly be criticised for that. Although he won junior titles at the Australian Open, French Open and US Open, there was no grand slam triumph, no end to the wait for a French winner of the men’s Roland-Garros title since Yannick Noah in 1983.
Monfils would not change his hand, however. “I’ve been super lucky. It would be tough to say I have regrets, honestly.” He laughs: “Maybe I could have enjoyed tennis even more.”
That is difficult to imagine, and it is hardly surprising to hear that the year in which tennis played through the pandemic was the lowest of his career. Without the energy of the crowd, Monfils was robbed of the stage in which to perform. “It was almost impossible for me to play,” he says. “I couldn’t have the vibes, nothing.” Results dipped and had the absence of crowds gone on any longer, Monfils may not have returned. Instead, when they did, he started to win matches straight away. He chuckles. “It was very simple.”
In the twilight of his career, the combination of tennis returning to normality and the life-changing event of becoming a father gave Monfils a renewed purpose. Though the first half of his season was disrupted by injury, Monfils returned to Roland-Garros in May with his ranking falling to World No 394 and, in one of the matches of the year, rallied from 0-4 down in the fifth set to defeat Sebastian Baez on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Without a completed match in over a year, Monfils could hardly walk as he performed the miracle escape and whipped the raucous French fans into a frenzy.
“A crazy experience,” he remembers. “I tell you, honestly, I don’t understand what happened, the vibes were monumental.” It was, though, pure Monfils: a performance to stir the senses, and for four hours he held the crowd in his spell.
Will there be one more epic in front of his home fans? There could be two, with Roland-Garros hosting not just the French Open but the Olympics next summer. “I always say, Paris is magic and, of course, it’s a special place,” he says. “If I qualify for the Olympics it would be amazing, for the rest I will see.” Although at 37, Monfils does not know when he will retire and does not see a potentially golden summer in Paris as an opportunity to do so.
For now, Monfils is in London, preparing for the UTS Grand Final, a competition that involves a shorter format of the sport and uses different rules, with matches played across four eight-minute quarters rather than sets. It’s an event Monfils likes, and the unique set up of the court – played with the net only extended to the singles lines – allows for even more angles, creativity and different shots.
“It’s fun,” he says. “Different rules, different vibes, a good mixture that I like between entertainment and competition.” Monfils hit the shot of the tournament at a previous UTS event in Frankfurt, when the Frenchman stepped to his right and slapped the most audacious forehand slice around the net and down the line for a clean winner. On the other side, his opponent, Andrey Rublev, immediately put his hands to his head in disbelief. It was not the only time this year that Monfils had produced a new trick.