It’s hard to picture two tennis players more different than Milos Raonic and Gael Monfils. Where Raonic is sensible and serious, Monfils is whimsical and entertaining. Raonic has methodically built a game around his big serve, and in spite of his relatively limited mobility and lack of fluid groundstrokes. Monfils, by contrast, oozes shotmaking talent, and still is among the best movers on the tour. But the difference that matters the most is this — where Monfils has not frequently maximized his prodigious athletic abilities on the tennis court, Raonic is in the process of wringing every last bit of results out of the talent he has.
In spite of their differences, Monfils and Raonic find themselves virtually in a dead heat in the ATP rankings, with the Canadian seeded 12th and the Frenchman one place lower. While Raonic’s dogged efforts to improve are well documented, this year, Gael Monfils has reportedly also rededicated himself to improving his results, rather than being content to entertain the crowds. But, what does a conservative Monfils look like?
For the better part of a set and a half, a conservative Monfils is what we got. He played smart tennis much of the time — keeping returns low, and making Raonic volley up where he could. Moreover, after falling behind a break early in the first set, Monfils stayed the course and managed to break Raonic to level off the set. But, with Raonic’s improved return and movement, the match-up favors the tall Canadian, and Raonic played solid groundstrokes to stay even with Monfils late in the first set. It was only after continued pressure from Raonic that Monfils finally was broken to lose the first set 7-5.
Falling behind early in the second set, Monfils began to pull out the stops — sliding around the court, and eventually taking a leap to try to return a shot that was out of reach, which resulted in a gory hand wound, as he scraped himself on the court. While the effort is commendable, it’s these types of shots that have left Monfils injured and unable to compete for weeks and months at a time. Not surprisingly, with Monfils slightly hampered but still trying, the match moved quickly to its conclusion with Raonic taking the second set 6-3 not long thereafter.
There’s a lot to admire about what Milos Raonic has done over the past few years. His clear, unapologetic desire to move past the Big Four stands in contrast to many of his peers. And he has backed up that goal with methodical work on his movement, his return game, and his groundstrokes. The Raonic who handled Monfils’ variety today is markedly improved over the player who Roger Federer easily outmaneuvered in the Wimbledon semifinals two years ago. While Raonic of two years ago could be beaten by forcing him into a rally, today, Raonic held his own against Monfils’ scrambling play and dipping groundstrokes. Moreover, Raonic now regularly imposes himself on the return game, and he created 13 break point chances against Monfils and won 42% of the points when returning serve. As he continues to fortify his game, the question has increasingly become not whether, but when, Raonic will win a major.
As for Monfils, today’s effort was commendable, particularly for its restraint. But I’m not so sure that restraint is the path to Monfils’ greatest success. Like his friend Federer, one gets the sense that Monfils plays his best when he can flow freely, without worrying about high percentage plays and sensible choices. He owes it to himself to see whether another path will get him closer to the top, but this experiment might be his riskiest play yet.