INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—Last night Gael Monfils had the whole arena in his palm, and he had his neon soles skidding across the whole arena. I can’t explain how how he does that on hardcourt baked dry in the desert sun—someone study his ankles and whatever they’re made of—but skidding was surely the precise verb, as he scrambled to every ball and charmed every mark in the stands. We ate that shit up. We laughed at it all, even at the errors that left him wailing out “Ai-ai-ai”s audible from the upper deck. Not that there was that much exasperation to be found in his 6-2, 6-4 win over John Isner; the breaks of serve came much earlier and easier than they usually do when Isner is involved. This third-round match tied itself up in 68 minutes of showmanship.
Monfils’s win was so straightforward that the tennis wasn’t even the most interesting part of the night, and by the end seemed almost incidental to the whole performance. That’s because half of Monfils’s genius is a kind of physical comedy: regardless of how well he’s playing, his lanky frame always tells a story, whether he’s planted both butt cheeks firmly on the court, head slung low in high tantrum, or strutting around with head cocked back, eyes egging on the crowd. He is maybe the only player on tour who can reliably entertain a viewer who has never before watched a complete point of tennis. He is almost definitely the only player on tour who can charm the audience without even swinging a racket at a ball: Sometimes he’d rather leap clean over it, or bobble it off his head, dribble it like a soccer ball. Monfils’s innate sense of drama—sparking it up where it is least expected, sometimes to his own detriment—will be etched into his legacy, even if he never earns the Grand Slam for which he has enough talent (twice over), and even if he loses in the next round to Dominic Thiem and never plays another match.
So please enjoy the above medley of good tennis feats, dumb tennis feats, and tennis feats that are simultaneously good and dumb. It might as well be a primer to his on-court persona. The cameramen missed only one important moment: A beat after winning the match, Monfils coolly mimed a jump shot into the stands. Given 24 hours and a basketball, I am by now convinced, he could probably produce a passable And1 mixtape, too.