Gael Monfils has been candid about both his personal and professional struggles during the past two years, a pandemic-stained stretch that has seen him fall out of the Top 10 and, in his own words, lose his “faith in tennis and everything”. Maybe that’s why the ever-popular Frenchman’s near-spotless start to 2022 has been such a feel-good affair.
Ranked No. 20, Monfils is 8-1 on the year, including a title run in Adelaide. Now he finds himself in the 10th major quarter-final of his career, his first since 2019. He’s winless against his next opponent in two previous encounters, but knows he’s pushed Matteo Berrettini to the limit at this stage before. They went five sets in the quarter-finals of the US Open in 2019, with the Italian ultimately prevailing, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6(5).
“Matteo has gained a lot of confidence the last two years,” Monfils observed. “I think he plays extremely aggressive. Big serve, flashy tennis with the forehand. Going for it. It’s going be a tough match.
“It’s been a long journey for me and I’m quite happy, but it’s not finished. I will try to play this quarter-final not like the last time; I will try to be better.”
Watch Highlights: Berrettini vs. Monfils At 2021 ATP Cup
Berrettini’s achievement in Melbourne has been especially satisfying, given that the 6’5” Italian was forced to withdraw from his Australian Open match against Stefanos Tsitsipas in 2021 due to an abdominal strain.
“It was really tough last year. I really wanted to play, but I couldn’t with the tear in the ab,” said the 2021 Wimbledon finalist. “But I believe there is a reason for everything that happens and I’ve been wishing to come back as soon as possible and the way I won today shows how much I care about this tournament.”
Berrettini, 25, will do his best to overpower Monfils, long one of the ATP’s elite athletes.
“He’s an experienced player. He’s been in these kinds of situations at the Slams so many times. But I’ve done the same,” he said. “Obviously, he’s played way more matches and is 10 years older than me, but in a way he’s still really young because his body is moving really well. He’s a tricky player.”
Watch Highlights Of Nadal & Shapovalov’s First Meeting:
One man is into his 14th Australian Open quarter-final, tied for the tournament record with home-country legend John Newcombe and second only to career-long rival Roger Federer (15). The other has played his way into his fourth consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final, now an established second-week presence on the sport’s very biggest stages.
But there’s still plenty of work to be done for quarter-final favourites Rafael Nadal and Berrettini in Melbourne Park.
Nadal, chasing a record 21st major singles title, faces a stiff challenge in the form of another lefty, streaking Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who’s coming off a straight-sets dismissal of third seed Alexander Zverev, and only days ago helped lead Canada to its first ATP Cup title. The big-hitting Berrettini, meanwhile, will be charged with cooling Frenchman Monfils, who at 35 is playing some of his most inspired tennis in years.
Though it’s been half a decade since Nadal got his first across-the-net glimpse of Shapovalov, then only 18, the Spaniard remembers it well. It was at the ATP Masters 1000 Canada in 2017, and Nadal had a shot at No. 1. But his free-swinging opponent, fresh off the ATP Challenger Tour and energised by the home crowd, delayed the pursuit with a wild 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(4) upset in the Round of 16.
“It was a tough one, that one,” Nadal reflected. “He played great. He was very young and he played with intensity and created some amazing shots. As everybody knows, he’s one of the players with the biggest potential on the Tour. After the match, I said he was a potential multi-Grand Slam winner. And I still think that, if he’s able to keep improving. When he’s playing well, it’s very difficult to stop him.”
Shapovalov has since lost three matches to Nadal, including a fourth-round, 6-3, 4-6, 6-7(3) defeat last year on clay in Rome. But after stunning the reigning Nitto ATP Finals titlist Zverev in the Round of 16, 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3, the World No. 14 is brimming with confidence.
“I’m definitely expecting a long battle out there,” said Shapovalov, just the third Canadian man in tournament history to reach the quarter-finals. “Obviously, he makes you play a lot. His defence is very good. He’s very good at what he does, so I’m going to have to try to play my game, take it to him and keep doing what I have been doing — playing patient, fighting for every point, and just picking my spots to play aggressively.”
Shapovalov’s alignment with former Andy Murray mentor Jamie Delgado is off to a good start.
“It’s been awesome,” said Shapovalov, who parted ways with Mikhail Youzhny in December. “It’s really new, but we’ve definitely clicked in terms of personalities and in terms of working on the court. I think we both have kind of the same vision for my game. I feel like he’s a super understanding person. He’s got so much experience and has been through so much with Andy. That’s something that I really thought would be great to add to my team.”
The 2009 Australian Open champ Nadal, who was sidelined for much of 2021 with a troublesome foot injury, is clearly enjoying his return to health, once again covering the court like only the Mallorcan can. If you have any doubts, just cue up his first-set tie-break against Adrian Mannarino of France in the fourth round. He simply refused to surrender the punishing, half-hour-long breaker, winning, 16/14.
“The main thing is about being healthy enough to be here,” he said. “But sport changes quick, and you need to be ready and you need to be there at the right moment to get it if you have the chance. I have been working very hard in all terms for a lot of months, not that much on court, but in all ways to try to come back to the Tour. I’m enjoying the fact that I’m here and again in the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam, something that’s very special to me. I’m excited just to have another chance to compete again against a fantastic player.”