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Profile: Gaël Monf The next Noah?

25-year-old French tennis star Gaël Monfils has been inspired by – and likened to – Yannick Noah.

After beating world number two Rafael Nadal at Doha earlier this year, he is one to watch at Roland Garros this month.

Almost 30 years after Yannick Noah made history with his French Open grand slam victory, a young French tennis player inspired by Noah is building up a solid reputation internationally and will be one to watch at this year’s tournament in Paris, which starts on May 22.

Gaël Monfils was not even born when Noah lifted the trophy at Roland Garros in 1983, becoming the first black man to win the French Open and the last French tennis player to have won there. Now, aged 25 and with €4.5m in prize winnings to his name already, Monfils is being tipped by sporting pundits as potentially the next big French grand slam champion.

It all started very early – Monfils was introduced to tennis by his father Rufin, a former professional footballer turned France Telecom salesman, while on holiday at the age of two, and he first caught the media’s attention at the age of just 11.

“I’d like to be like [Yannick Noah],” says the young Monfils in the archive television news report from 1998, available online. “He’s a good example – an idol. It’s a dream to be in the world top 10.” His coach at the time, Richard Warmoes, is seen on the video telling an enthusiastic young Monfils that he needs to work hard: “You know one day you’ll be photographed, interviewed, watched by 20,000 people at Roland Garros.”

He was proved right, with Monfils turning professional in 2005, and last summer making it to number nine in the ATP men’s singles rankings. At the time of writing, he has slipped back to 14.

As a teenager, Monfils trained alongside fellow up-and-coming tennis stars Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon – and between them they were dubbed the “new musketeers” by the French media.

His first major step towards stardom came in 2004, when he won the junior finals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Australian Open, and was crowned International Tennis Federation youth world champion.

However, after turning pro the following year, Monfils struggled at first. He built up a reputation for his powerful and aggressive playing style – for some time he held the record for the fastest serve, at 190.8kph – but his energetic performance frequently led to accidents.

Commentators say he still puts his body through too much pressure and over-works himself so much that he has missed out on several big matches because of injury. His back, a shoulder, wrist and knee have all been injured in recent years, and he had to drop out of the Davis Cup in March and the Monte Carlo Masters last month because of ongoing injury problems.

Many of the problems come from his trademark sliding style – a technique many players reserve for clay courts but that Monfils has made his own. It has earnt him the nickname “Sliderman” but some tennis watchers say his lean, muscular frame is not suited for it. One French sports journalist told ESPN magazine: “He is like a race car – strong, but fragile.”

Monfils replied in a recent interview: “People say I slide too much. To me, it’s a gift, it’s natural. It may be different, but I’m me. I’m more of an artist. I create new styles because I don’t want to lose.”

Roger Federer said of Monfils recently: “I always think it’s disappointing when he’s injured. Gaël is fun to watch but also fun to play against; not just because you win or lose, but because it’s exciting.”

Another major success came in 2008, when Monfils – ranked world number 32 at the time – made it to the semi-finals at Roland Garros. He has guarded against complacency, however, admitting he is still learning and making mistakes. Eliminated in March from the third round of the Miami Masters, he said: “It’s really my fault. I’ve only got myself to blame. I should have tried a lot harder in training. I know I can do better. I need to put up more of a fight.”

Notable successes so far this year include making the finals at Montpellier, and beating world number two Rafael Nadal in straight sets in the semi-finals at Doha. Nadal said of Monfils in a recent interview: “His potential is unbelievable. But similar to me, when you play very aggressive with that flexibility you have more chances to get injured.”

Like Noah, and fellow tennis players Guy Forget and Henri Leconte, Monfils’ home is across the border in Switzerland for tax reasons. He told Men’s Health magazine: “I’ve no problem talking about it. One day, my agent explained to my parents that it was worth thinking about settling there, and he outlined the different economic advantages. I wasn’t too keen to start with, but I started to become interested.

“I made friends very quickly. I discovered a country where I feel good. I’ve got my own favourite places, shops and restaurants and I’m proud to say that I love Switzerland. The people are very relaxed and open.”

Monfils says relationships are often difficult because of the pressures of the game. He has dated French tennis player Alizé Cornet and Slovak Dominika Cibulkova in the past, and currently lives with his Australian girlfriend.

“Before I became famous, it was different – much more spontaneous,” he told Men’s Health. “These days I’m asked so many questions: why me and not another girl? How do I know you’re sincere? You travel a lot, how can I be sure you’ll be faithful? It’s a real headache.

“I need someone who understands and accepts my lifestyle. I know it’s not easy. Because I’m always in the foreground, it’s difficult for the other person.”

Monfils says he knows the importance of switching off. He enjoys a game of poker, is an avid follower of NBA basketball and recently took part in an informal kickabout with players during a training session at local football team Évian Thonon-Gaillard – a chance to let off some steam and take it easy ahead of what could be a busy summer on the courts.

1986 Born and raised in Paris by father Rufin, from Guadeloupe, and mother Sylvette, from Martinique
1998 Profiled by French television news, report, aged 11, as up-and-coming star 2000 One-year scholarship at a tennis academy in Russia
2001 Joined French Tennis Federation, trained alongside Jo Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon
2004 Wins junior single’s prizes at Wimbledon, Australian and French Open
2008 Makes the semi-final stage at Roland Garros
2011 Enters ATP world top 10 ranking
2012 Beat world number two Rafael Nadal at Doha

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