Photo by @tomasberdych.
The U.S. Open, the fourth and final tennis Grand Slam tournament of the year, begins on August 25. Two hundred fifty-six men and women in the singles competitions – and hundreds more in the doubles, mixed doubles, juniors, wheelchair, and Champions Invitational divisions – will vie for the career-changing honors and generous prize money to be awarded inside the world’s largest tennis stadium, Arthur Ashe, in Queens, New York.
As of this writing, the competitor lists are not fixed. Last year’s men’s champion, Rafael Nadal, has not yet announced whether a recent wrist injury will prevent him from defending his title.
Today I cannot offer you prognostications about the eventual winners, but I can recommend three players to watch for sheer entertainment value, whether you are a passionate tennis fan or new to the sport.
1. Gael Monfils
Current rank: 23
Gael Monfils is a human highlight reel. Both the most athletically gifted player on the ATP World Tour (the men’s professional tennis circuit) and the tour’s greatest natural showman, Monfils blends unconventional (and unpredictable) shot-making with good-natured theatre to win over every stadium crowd. He recently told an interviewer that although he prefers winning points to entertaining, “When the show is on, it’s on.”
Monfils’ career has been derailed several times by injury and inconsistency, but this summer he is in excellent form. A Monfils match against any opponent is a sure bet for virtuosity and pure entertainment.
Monfils at his best gives everything to win a point (here at the 2014 French Open).
The ATP will require you to go to YouTube to view these next highlights of a recent Monfils match against Novak Djokovic, but Monfils’ racquet skills are well worth the extra clicks.
2. Fabio Fognini
If Gael Monfils is the ATP’s best showman, the highly talented Fabio Fognini may be its greatest conundrum. Fognini excels at making brilliance look easy. On his best days, he saunters around the court lackadaisically, firing spectacular shots so casually as to make them appear effortless.
At his worst and, to his fans, most maddening, he seems to exert no effort whatsoever. Twice in 2014 crowds have booed him off the court for giving up when the score has gone against him.
Perhaps because of Fognini’s wild inconsistency – the outcome of one of his matches depends upon which Fognini shows up for work on a given day – he has an uncanny knack for bringing out his opponents’ worst tennis. More than once he has taken sets from even top players not by playing well but by lulling his opponents into states of confused lethargy.
Fognini generates more than his share of controversy. Recently he angered fans by retweeting a joke implying that Serena Williams is a man. He has misbehaved on court so badly as to incur numerous fines, most notably a tournament-record $27,500. at this year’s Wimbledon. YouTube searches for “Fabio Fognini chair umpire” and “Fabio Fognini meltdown” produce long lists of hits.
Here, after losing an argument with chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani this year in Madrid, Fognini actually threatens Lahyani with bodily harm.
In the next clip, Fognini loses a match on purpose. While serving down one set and at 4-5, he (1) double faults; (2) double faults again; (3) whacks a ball in disgust, thereby incurring a point penalty (since he had already received a code violation warning); and (4) commits two deliberate foot faults in order to lose the game’s (and the match’s) final point.
Fognini has managed to avoid dismissal from the ATP tour for his antics, because he can be a top-notch player, and because his outrageous behavior is outweighed (usually, but not always) by his considerable charm. Tennis fans flock to his matches.
One can understand why through this clip from last year’s Wimbledon. As Fognini engages in Puccini-esque melodramatics to protest a line call, veteran chair umpire Pascal Maria cannot manage to keep a straight face.
3. Ernests Gulbis
Born to great wealth and blessed with phenomenal athletic talent, Ernests Gulbis has spent most of his career failing to live up to his potential, showing flashes of brilliance separated by long periods of underachievement. By his own admission, Gulbis lacked the motivation and work ethic required to perform consistently well during tennis’ long and grinding season.
Fortunately for Ernests – and for the sport – Gulbis kicked himself into gear for the 2014 season. In his own words, he ‘caught the last train out of the station’ to salvage his career.
As with Fognini, Gulbis can be riveting to watch for reasons both good and bad.
- Gulbis hits the ball hard, aggressively, and accurately. When he is at his best, he is a brilliant shot maker.
- Gulbis’ form is idiosyncratic – amusingly so at times. His forehand wind-up (lampooned here by Tennis Channel’s engineers) earned him the nickname “Seagulbis.”
- Gulbis is one of the ATP World Tour’s most experienced and dramatic racquet smashers. When he loses an important point, he is not shy about blaming and punishing his equipment.
- Unlike most men on the tour, Gulbis has no fear of facing the top players. He comports himself on court with a belligerent confidence and an unshakeable belief that he should win. As a result, he sometimes does: he has beaten Novak Djokovic (current world #1) and Andy Murray (#9) once each and Roger Federer (#3) twice.
- Articulate to the point of glibness, light-hearted, and self-confident, Gulbis offers the most entertaining and unconventional press conferences on the tour. Examples abound. In this clip, he misunderstands a reporter’s question about umpires and gives a candid and thoughtful answer about the role of vampires in tennis.
Gulbis’ repertoire of press comments is so rich that one blogger has compiled “The 40 Best Quotes of Ernests Gulbis’ Career.”
Next week I’ll talk about the tournament’s favorites and dark horses. ‘Til then…
Quote for Today
“I would like interviews to be more like in boxing. OK, maybe those guys are not the most brilliant on earth but, when they face each other down at the weigh-in, they bring what the fans want: war, blood, emotion. All that is missing in tennis, where everything is clean and white with polite handshakes and some nice shots, while the people want to see broken rackets and hear outbursts on the court.” – Ernests Gulbis