For sheer athleticism, acrobatics and imagination, there’s no more dynamic performer in men’s tennis than Gael Monfils.
All the adjectives apply – whirling dervish, high flyer, rocket man.
Add the natural instincts of a showman to his rare physical skills and flexibility, and Rod Laver Arena patrons are in for an entertaining contest on Saturday night when he plays top seed Rafael Nadal.
Monfils has ranked as high No. 7 (2011) but currently resides at No. 32 after a few years of fitness issues – both knees and also his wrist.
He and Nadal have played 11 times with Nadal leading 9-2. Oddly, both of the Monfils wins came early in the season in Doha, Qatar – 2009 and 2012.
Nadal avenged those losses with a 6-1 6-7(5) 6-2 win in the Doha final two weeks ago.
The most memorable edition of Nadal-Monfils came at the 2009 US Open, a night match, and Monfils’ sensational play on that occasion would have received rave reviews on Broadway. For almost two sets he mesmerised spectators and bamboozled Nadal with a high-wire act of red-lining tennis – hitting every ball almost as hard as he could.
His tennis was of such ferocity that the mighty Spaniard looked meek and over-matched.
But it didn’t (couldn’t?) last, and Nadal was there when Monfils came back to earth, winning 6-7(3) 6-3 6-1 6-3.
Following his win over Jack Sock on Thursday, Monfils, who says he has matured on and off the court, was asked about that magical night in Arthur Ashe Stadium, about whether he could summon a similar effort on Saturday.
“That’s the big question I’ll ask in two days. Will I be ready to play at that level for a minimum of four hours, whether I’ll be able to battle? Often against Rafa it’s just certain moments. It’s up to me to manage them well. Right now I think I’ll be able to manage them. I hope to be ready.”
While Monfils and Nadal, both 27, are familiar figures on tour, Milos Raonic, 23, and Grigor Dimitrov, 22, are part of the new breed – and at the moment the two leading men of the peloton.
They meet in a salivating clash on Margaret Court Arena in the afternoon that can be reduced to the raw power of the 196cm Raonic’s serve and forehand versus the all-round game of the 190cm Dimitrov, featuring his sweeping, single-handed backhand.
Other compelling confrontations have Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon facing off for the ninth time (Tsonga leads 5-3), with Simon coming off consecutive five-set wins, and a clash of 24-year-olds who have shown exceptional promise at different times – Kei Nishikori of Japan and crafty American lefty Donald Young.
Roger Federer might have been the marquee match-up on Saturday, but Fernando Verdasco failed to reach their appointed rendez-vous. Instead it will be Verdasco’s conqueror, 28-year-old qualifier Teymuraz Gabashvili from Georgia, across the net.
Andy Murray is 7-0 against Spanish heartthrob Felicano Lopez, now sporting a new minimalist haircut. That match is at Hisense Arena on Saturday afternoon.
In women’s action, there aren’t quite as many high-profile confrontations, but two to watch are Maria Sharapova against spirited Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet first-thing in Rod Laver Area and fetching Spanish newcomer Garbine Muguruza versus fetching Caroline Wozniacki.
But Nadal-Monfils remains today’s biggie. When asked in French if he would prefer afternoon or night, the playful Monfils answered emphatically, “le soir, le soir.” He gets his wish, prime-time under lights at Rod Laver Arena.
TOM’S INTREPID TIPS
Nadal vs Monfils
Monfils can play like a rockstar, but he hasn’t got a back-up band – and Nadal is all about long solo performances. Nadal in four.
Sharapova vs Cornet
After her ordeal against Karin Knapp in brutal heat on Thursday, Sharapova returns to dominance against feisty Frenchwoman Cornet. Sharapova in two.
Tsonga vs Simon
Tsonga is playing a weary and worn-out opponent after Simon, sore ankle and all, went five sets in each of his first two rounds. Tsonga in four.
Radwanska vs Pavlyuchenkova
Radwanska and the No. 30-ranked Russian Pavlyuchenkova have played close matches in the past. It happens again before the Pole progresses. Radwanska in three.
Raonic vs Dimitrov
Raonic is aiming to reach his fifth Grand Slam round of 16, Dimitrov his first. Every bit of experience helps. Raonic in four.
Muguruza vs Wozniacki
Muguruza, 20 and ranked No. 38, is an unknown quantity to many but not Wozniacki – she beat the Dane 6-2 6-4 in Miami last March. Muguruza in three.
Nishikori vs Young
Nishikori defeated Young 6-3 6-3 in Memphis last year in their only meeting as pros. He won’t lose a set again in this time. Nishikori in three.
Stephens vs Svitolina
This match featuring two 20-and-unders goes to Stephens. She out-hits the improving Svitolina from Ukraine. Stephens in two.