French flair for SA Open

2010-01-30 00:00

SOUTH Africans have the opportunity to get up close and personal with one of the world of sport’s most unusual personalities when the R3,75 million SA Tennis Open plays out at Montecasino in Johannesburg from Monday to next Sunday’s final

Top seed Gael Monfils (pronounced ga-EL mon-FEES) is a player like no other. He drinks in the atmosphere and laps up the crowds that flock to world-class tennis events, to watch the man who personifies the words charisma and magnetism.

At 1,93 m and 80 kg, world No. 12 Monfils is probably the most athletic player on the circuit. Blessed with the elasticity of an eel and combined with his height and crowd-pleasing slides on even the most abrasive of courts, he has the ability to become a member of the ultra-exclusive grand slam champions club — and even reach tennis’s Everest, the world number one ranking.

Monfils, who turned pro in 2004, rebelled against the conformity demanded of the French federation coaching system and went through coaches far more prolifically than Jacob Zuma collects wives.

Paradoxically, Monfils needed a mentor who could give him the edge, while giving free rein to the flamboyant Frenchman’s innate determination to explore the outer reaches of his ability as a player.

Even more significantly, he needed someone that he respected, a person from whom he would be prepared to take advice in order to fulfil the immense promise that has seen him burdened with that often fatal “player most likely to succeed” tag that has burnt out so many prodigious young talents before they have even launched into the big time.

The 23-year-old is coached by Australian Roger Rasheed, the man who is renowned for his conditioning expertise and ability to bring out the mongrel in a player. He morphed one-time world number one and grand slammer Lleyton Hewitt into a snarling animal on court.

Monfils’s compatriot, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, says Rasheed gave his close friend the structure and focus to match his flair and ambition, a warrior-like persona that is softened by the showman’s natural desire to please.

And the absence of world No. 10 Tsonga, the reigning SA Open champion, who unfortunately chose to rest after the Australian Open, will boost Monfils’s chances of claiming next Sunday’s $80 000 winner’s cheque at Montecasino.

One of Monfils’s most memorable moments was in the final of an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament in France at the end of last year. His last match of 2009 unfolded against world number three Novak Djokovic at the BNP Paribas Masters final in Bercy, east of Paris, where he was raised.

Trailing a set and a break against the on-song Serb, Monfils clawed back to a set all before Djokovic won out in the third set tiebreak.

Meanwhile, in yesterday’s SA Closed Championship, top seed Raven Klaasen beat big server Nikala Scholtz 4-6 6-3 6-4 in the final, earning R10 000 and an SA Open wild card.

Scholtz (18), son of former Western Province fullback Calla, gets another crack at the Montecasino main draw via the qualifiers this weekend.

On Thursday, Scholtz upset second seed Andrew Anderson 6-7 6-4 6-3 in the semi-final, while Klaasen beat fellow Pietermaritzburg finalist Ruan Roelofse 7-6 6-4.

SA Open tickets: Computicket and Montecasino.

TV: Live on SuperSport.

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