Gael Monfils Overcomes Ernests Gulbis: Entertaining Tennis at its Finest

Gael Monfils stretching for a forehand against Ernests Gulbis

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

There are two types of “tennis” that invariably never fail to draw our attention. The first is just plain good tennis. Watching the best players in the world compete at a high level is just difficult to turn away from. When players like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, etc. step on to the court, you know that you will be in for a high-quality treat. No, none of them are perfect. But when their games are on — which is far more often than not — then missing out is not an option.

The second, though, is entertaining for an entirely different reason. This is what you get when players like Fabio Fognini step on the court. It is crowd-pandering, showmanship, joking around, and still good tennis while they’re at it. This keeps us ooh-ing and ahh-ing, but also laughing a bit while we watch too. So when two of the most talented showmen in tennis took the court in the second round of Roland Garros, we knew it would be a can’t-miss event.

Gael Monfils is an incredible talent. He was a top 10 player in 2011 before being sidelined with an injury for much of the past year. But he can be frustrating to watch for both fans and coaches alike. His decision-making on court can be questionable at times, to put it nicely. He is well-known for his showman-like slides and jumping backhand. He is fun to be a fan of, but you are left with disappointment more often than joy in the end of the day when he loses winnable matches. He has, not unfairly, been described as a “headcase”.

If that is the story of Gael Monfils, then Ernests Gulbis takes it to another level. Gulbis is one of the purest talents we’ve seen in a long time. And when he finds his game, it is a beauty. He burst onto the scene six years ago, challenging the top players in the world. Then he sort of stopped caring and disappeared from the stage of top-level tennis. He is now making a slow comeback and seems to be fixing his attitude, but he is very much a work in progress. And, like Monfils, his on-court decision-making can leave you scratching your head.

So tennis fans around the world set up to watch Monfils and Gulbis fight it out on Philippe Chatrier, not knowing what the outcome would be but knowing that it would be amusing getting there. And the match did not disappoint, not in the slightest.

I won’t go too much into specific points, other than noting that watching highlights of this match would be time well spent. For a while, it felt like every other point followed the same trajectory: strong baseline hitting with great defense, some crazy angle or drop shot that required lots of movement, amazing gets, only to be ended by a silly error when the court was wide open. The number of brilliant shots in this match was beyond counting. The number of terrible errors to end points was an equally astounding.

The match was entertainment at its finest. Gulbis’s offense was brilliant for long stretches of time. Monfils’s defense was impeccable, chasing down every ball and not letting up. Gulbis would have stretches of absolute offensive ineptitude, missing even the easiest of shots by wide margins. When Monfils would attack, his baseline game was strong as usual and Gulbis’s defense would be up to the task.

Both players ended up playing awkwardly around the net due to Gulbis’s penchant for well-timed but poorly-hit drop shots. Both players would scramble like crazy, making impossible returns in some of the situations set up by being at the net. Gulbis also seemed fond of hitting volleys on balls that are clearly going out. He lost half a dozen points by hitting errors on such shots or smashing them straight to Monfils.

But it’s not just the individual points that made this match so much fun to watch. The overall trajectory of the match was almost predictable in its insanity. No break could be consolidated. Monfils was serving for the third set at 5-3, had 40-0, and managed to squander 5 set points and get broken. This didn’t surprise anyone. Nothing in this match surprised anyone. It ended in four sets when Gulbis self-destructed a little, but the points were still fun then too.

And then there was the changeover prior to the fourth set. Waiting on Gulbis, Monfils whipped out his iPhone to pan the crowd doing the wave. Then, as Gulbis returned from his bathroom break, he walked past Monfils chatting and laughing with him. The friendly exchange continued as the Frenchman then walked by Gulbis on his way to the court and stopped for an extended laugh and chat. For a few moments, it felt more like a practice session between friends than the second round of a Slam.

Sometimes tennis entertains us because it’s a battle of the best in the world playing at their highest levels. And sometimes it’s just plain old fun. And Monfils against Gulbis was a bit of both.