Gael Monfils, the flying Frenchman with the flamboyant style and maverick theatrical tendencies, makes a comeback Tuesday which could hint at whether he still has the potential for major titles.
The 26-year-old Switzerland-based Parisian won three Grand Slam titles as a junior and at times looked good enough to repeat that at senior level but in the last seven months has only been able to play eight competitive matches.
Monfils has also fallen from a world ranking of seven to 77 following a year and a half's continual knee problems - saddling him with a year-end finish outside the top 20 for the first time in five years
All this makes his reappearance here on new year's day, at a tournament where he has done well in the past, particularly important.
“It's tough for me to talk because I was not on the tour (for some time) and it's always bad for a tennis player to be out for a long while like this,” Monfils said. “It will be easier to say after a couple of weeks, but I know I can still be a very good tennis player.
“I have been in the top ten, so for sure I want to get back there. The start of the season will be very hard because I need to get matches for confidence, and to feel that I'm back, like definitely back, week after week.”
Then he relented and uttered what he might really be his target. “Honestly I want to play for (a ranking of) seven,” he admitted. “I would say that would be my aim, like then I will see what is my potential.”
Monfils has been drawn against a local wild card player, Mousa Shanan Zayed, an 18-year-old with a ranking of 1851, which may offer an opportunity to ease his way back into a competitive ambience.
“First, I just want to enjoy being on the court,” Monfils said. “When you're injured, you're not a tennis player any more. You're just someone trying to get healthy quick.”
Things should get immediately tougher though, for the probable second round opponent is Phillip Kohlschreiber, the top 20 German, who will be a stern test of Monfils' fitness to return to that level.
The Frenchman claims the injury has cleared up. “I'm good. I am fit. My knee is fine. All good,” he said.
“It was quite a long struggle last year, like a lot. And then it took me, yeah, couple of more months after I tried to come back, and now it's good.”
He added: “When you choose to be back on the court, it's because you are a hundred percent. If you are not, there is no point in coming back. If I'm here it's because I feel a hundred percent. I'm ready to give my best and ready to challenge myself to try to be back at my top level.”
If appearances are anything to judge by, Monfils may now be a more disciplined player, because his long locks have been replaced by a tightly shorn haircut during the off season.
His words bode well too. “After such a long time without competition, to come back to a place I like and I used to play good will help,” he said.
If Monfils is his real self again, a treat is probably in store. He has twice been a finalist here, where he is remembered for his limbo dance at the player party the night before his showdown with Roger Federer as well as for last year's exciting three-set final with his compatriot, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
This, though, is a more serious looking Monfils, mindful of the injury-induced tribulations which have befallen Rafael Nadal, and acutely aware that rebuilding his own career has to start right now. - Sapa-AFP