Gael Monfils was pushed to breaking point during his four-set loss to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open on Thursday.
He was sick. He was dizzy. He felt like he was going to collapse — but he didn’t. Another thing he didn’t do was give up — but maybe he should have.
The temperature climbed to 69C in the middle of Rod Laver Arena and there were demands for the match to be stopped or at least for organizers to close the roof to soften what Djokovic called the “brutal” conditions. That didn’t happen and the players fought on.
“No, no, no,” Monfils said in his post-match press conference when asked if he thought about stopping.
Tennis stars — and elite athletes in general – are trained to push through the pain at all costs. There’s the lure of trophies, endorsement deals and the fatter pay checks that always come with a rise up the rankings. Playing to win is everything when your livelihood is at stake.
Port Adelaide AFL legend Kane Cornes certainly subscribes to the theory of “when the going gets tough the tough get going”.
“Push on, there’s too much talk about heat,” Kornes said on Sportsday SA on Thursday evening.
“Lleyton Hewitt used to ask for his games to be scheduled in the middle of the day because that’s his advantage.
“You come to Australia to play in the Australian Open, it’s going to be hot so let’s not have a whinge about it.
“The tough ones always get through and that’s what I like about it. The fit players get an advantage, the ones that prepare themselves in the off-season.
Federers point of view on the matter
“The players just need to toughen up and get on with it.” Tennis champ Roger Federer seemed to express a similar view after overwhelming Jan-Lennard Struff last night. Federer, who was lucky enough to play in the evening session after the heat had lessened, said players should be expecting to face extreme temperatures in Australia. “You do know when you come to Australia the heat can sometimes be problematic, but everyone faces similar issues,” Federer said. “Sure, I was watching the other players suffer, but as long as nothing bad happens it’s all good.
“The problem is at that temperature, sometimes your body just reacts funny just because it does. It is hard to get out of it, that feeling of not feeling well.” Federer said there was no easy solution for tournament organizers, with roof closures and match delays presenting unfair circumstances across the field. “On a day like today, what do you do? Stop all matches?” he said.
“Lucky guys on the big courts, do they get to play under the roof? Do the other guys get postponed to the next day, and is that great? “Sure, I’m happy I played at nighttime. But like I said on court, I would back myself playing during the daytime also.”
You’d think Monfils’ desperation to play to the painful end would put him in the same category as Cornes or Federer – but that’s not the case. Shortly before the English speaking component of the Frenchman’s media obligations came to an end he said something many have likely thought, but had been afraid to say out loud. Asked about what players can expect on Friday – when temperatures are forecast to be even hotter — Monfils said there is no shame in giving up.
“I think sometimes, yeah, we put our body at risk. Just be smart. If you have to give up, you know, it’s not a shame,” he said.
It was an impressive revelation that spoke to Monfils’ humility, bravery and class. How many other expert sportsmen or women would openly admit giving up during one of the four biggest tournaments of the year is OK? How many of them would admit to not being as strong as everyone expects them to be?
Unless your name is Bernard Tomic, fear of public rebuke and “shame” no doubt plays a role in convincing players to push their bodies to the extreme even when it’s the last thing they want to do. As Monfils alluded to, that doesn’t always have to be part of their job description, especially when their health is involved.
There’ll be many — like Cornes — who disagree with Monfils on that front, and that’s fine, everyone’s entitled to have their say. But only two people were running around on centre court for two hours and 45 minutes on Thursday, so their opinion is the only one that matters and the only one people should take notice of.
Djokovic and Monfils were both hurting, though anyone who saw the match will know Monfils was doing it worse. Kornes spoke of the fittest, best prepared athletes being rewarded in scorching conditions like the ones players and spectators suffered through at Melbourne Park, but as Djokovic pointed out, his opponent fits that bill to a tee and even he couldn’t escape mother nature’s wrath.
“He truly is one of the best athletes we have in tennis,” Djokovic said after Monfils had addressed what he thought was perfect preparation. “I trained this winter in Miami,” Monfils said. “It was pretty hot. I thought I was very good.”
Some say playing in a furnace takes tennis from a sport of skill to one purely of physical endurance, which is not what the sport is about. Ironically, Monfils has no issue with the fittest player coming out on top, saying he didn’t even want the roof closed. “When you’re fighting … (and) the fittest wins — I’m fair with that,” he said. “Maybe not (close) the roof because, as I said, the fittest wins, and I think that is fair enough.” The man who said he was “dying on court” still wasn’t willing to take the effortless way out and cry foul about being forced to play in the severe heat. That’s seriously impressive stuff.
Cornes may not have much sympathy for players battling it out under the ferocious Melbourne sun but chair umpire John Blom from Australia did, and Djokovic couldn’t speak highly enough of him after the match. “The chair umpire was doing an excellent job today,” Djokovic said. “He was really trying to participate in the game and understand what’s happening. He was obviously trying to tolerate a few times for both of us, after some certain points that went long, conditions were really challenging for all of us, for the crowd as well. “It’s just this human factor of the chair umpire really putting an effort to understand what’s happening, really understanding the game, the dynamics of the points, the conditions and how that affects it all.
“When a chair umpire does his job, like ours did today, I just have to say well done. It’s not easy also for him to sit out there and kind of control both players, you know, have that kind of tolerance.” Playing through extreme heat is a topic that arises almost every year at the Australian Open and it remains to be seen, with temperatures expected to soar to 42C on Friday, whether anyone will need to follow Monfils’ advice.