There was a moment at the final of the Washington Open when I thought the spectators should be reprimanded for biggism. If the six-eleven guy hit long or out of bounds, they cheered. If he netted, they cheered. If he hit a spectacular return of serve, quick as a whip across the court and unreachable, there was subdued clapping. If he hit a monster ace, there was subdued clapping. You get the drift. By contrast, if the other guy did any of the preceding, the crowd roared. When he broke the big guy’s service — the first opponent in the week-long tournament to do so — the crowd acted as if the Chicago Cubs had won the pennant. It was unseemly.
Observe that Gaël Monfils is no little guy. He is six-four and though lean and wiry at 177 pounds, he is more than what used to be called wiry; he is tough and strong, fast, with a tremendous punch-back power. He displayed this over and over by returning the Big Man’s services, which seemed to run from 136 (the first) to 135 (the second). That is not accurate, the typical Ivo Karlovic second serve is in the mid-120s. To get those back over the net takes muscle, sheer, unvarnished muscle, the kind you get from lifting sides of beef.
Biggism was not the issue. There are other very tall players on the Tour, including several of the much-touted “next-gen” champs who are said to be the future of American tennis. They are champs — they swept the Grand Slam Juniors a year ago, the first time in memory all four majors’ junior tournaments were won by American boys, and there is no doubt they are awfully talented. Several of them were here last week, and they and their near-next-gen colleagues, let us say, broadly, players under 25, looked fine, promising. Ryan Harrison for example did very well until he ran into Steve Johnson, who did very well until he ran into Ivo Karlovic in the semis.
Taylor Fritz, who is 18, looked good in the first round against Dudi Sela but he did not look so good against Alexander Zverev in the next one, and Zverev, at 19, is the German next-gen answer to the American next-gen. Zverev did much better than his American contemporaries, going another round against Tunisian veteran Malek Jaziri, and yet another one against French mid-vet Benoît Paire. Then he got blown off the court by Gaël Monfils, though admittedly he was unwell that day. Kids often are. Anyway, Zverev is six-six, hundred-ninety. These are not little guys.
Other American next-gens at the Washington Open — currently the Citi Open but in the past the Washington Star Open and other names — included Reilly Opelka, 18, six-eleven, two hundred ten. So, biggism, shmiggism — I say phooey.
Ivo Karlovic, who is from Zagreb, capital of Croatia, is a man with a wry sense of humor, very low-octane. He claims he is old enough to be some of his opponents’ father and may be — immediately adding that he is kidding. It might make a good self-deprecating line, but then it should be delivered without the disclaimer — like his enormous take-no-prisoners serves. Note, on the subject of serves, that a big server brings out the best in others’ serves. Ivo’s opponents, notably Jack Sock (next-gen broadly defined) and Steve Johnson (not next gen), have huge serves. But Ivo’s serve — even Monfils, who is the kind of player who scrambles after almost anything, not infrequently just looked and let himself get aced. As in baseball, “strike outs looking.”
It is true that at 37 (an earlier dispatch may have given his age erroneously as the youthful 35) he is getting on a bit for tennis pro, and yet Roger Federer is almost there, and so are the best American players on the women’s side of the Tour, Venus and Serena Williams. Pancho Gonzales — but I have mentioned him so often in these chronicles that you, the reader, you know about Pancho Gonzales.
Ivo should, one would think, have been better received. His was a kind of cinderella story. He started out badly this year, as he has many years, but he has been having a much improved spring and summer, with a win at Newport last week. He is big but, in reality, he is the underdog, the long-suffering striver, longing for redemption and victory.
Monfils is popular on the American circuit, largely because he unabashedly loves to visit and play in America. A couple years ago I saw him play John Isner, by no means an unpopular player, at the U.S. Open, and the raucous crowd was not only pro-Monfils, it was wildly and often unfairly anti-Isner.
So, a certain pro-Monfils foundation at the outset, understandable. A child of Paris, born of Antillais (Caribbean islands) parents who moved to the métropole (mainland) before he was born (the islands are French départments [counties], not colonies), he speaks with the slang-laced irreverence of a big-city kid, but he has all the formal politeness and serieux of a proper French public person when, for example, sitting at a press conference after a match.
Everything was expected of this child phenom who won not one but three of the Grand Slam junior championships. He has been an ATP Masters champion more than once. But thus far the Slams themselves elude him, as do the Masters 1000’s (e.g., Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, where he made it to the final this year, losing to Rafael Nadal); in fact, the win at Washington is his first 500.
This is odd, admittedly. Monfils is not, like Ivo Karlovic, a very good but not-quite-great athlete. Sports are filled with the latter. They are fantastic, but they lack the magic that distinguishes a Roger Federer or a Clayton Kershaw. Monfils has the magic. But — something happens, and he does not find the “window” that he says he patiently waited for the break into Karlovic’s serve, as no one had been able to do all week. Or maybe, against a Federer or a Djokovic, it’s that he forgets to close his windows.
This is fine, I suppose. It leaves us with the space of mystery that makes awe possible. Ivo Karlovic, for a two fantastic weeks — he won last week at the Hall of Fame Classic at Newport, R.I., and had a wonderful run this week in Washington — seemed almost to be saying, I am too to be counted with the greatest. But, modest and virtuous, he would in fact never say it.
He had a markedly improved game in many respects, compared to the past, ah, 15 or 20 years that we have been watching that big serve and then the deflation after a round or two. Though no one, even the players he was beating, seemed to want to give him credit, the fact is that Ivo has a remarkably nimble and sure-handed net game. It is not just his broad reach, though of course that helps. He catches attempted passing shots remarkably well, with the “soft hands” of a great net man like Brian Baker, whacking them back toward the lines on either side where his opponent cannot reach them. He has, on occasion, a deadly return of serve, a bolt of lightning that you can only look at. He can hit a good deep groundstroke with the forehand, resist with the backhand and wait for an opening.
Observers do not give him credit for these skills, because of that big serve. And of course, they are right: improvements there have been, but Ivo Karlovic still depends on his serve-and-volley game to win. That is why he cannot beat a top player. In Monfils, this past week, he finally met the man who can beat the mighty Ace, because Monfils is a top player, without being in the top of the rankings — such is the Monfils mystery.
Maybe that, finally, is why the crowd was so partisan. They have adopted Gaël Monfils, he is like an honorary American, so there is that; but more, he has the all-court game, the clever tactics plus the toughness plus the power (he hit almost as many aces as Ivo in this match) plus the combination of aw-shucks-let’s-have-some-fun and extreme-focus-and-attention-to-detail that characterizes Americans. (It is precisely when he lets these traits down and plays like a Frenchman that he loses.) The Citi Open crowd was not anti-Croatian or anything so geopolitical. They just saw in the big, serious, seemingly laconic man an emissary from a distant culture, whereas in Gaël they found one of their own.
He has not won as much as he rightly should have. Late bloomings are always possible — Steve Johnson surely proves that. But the gift of Gaël Monfils to American tennis may well be to show the next-gen hotshots that it is not enough to be a next-gen hot shot (as he was, avant la lettre), what you need is work, and versatility, and adaptability, and more work.