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Gael Monfils leaves Melbourne a winner

Yes, Gael Monfils will not win the Australian Open. He lost to Matteo Berrettini in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.

Yet, winners aren’t just the ones who lift trophies. Triumphs can be found in many shapes and sizes.

Merely getting to the main draw is an achievement for a player ranked outside the top 200.

Winning a major-tournament match can be the achievement of a lifetime for a journeyman player toiling away at the Challenger level for several years.

Much as the Olympics give us extraordinary stories of perseverance and resilience among athletes who don’t win gold medals, or who even reach the medal stand, so it also is in tennis: You don’t have to lift a trophy to be a champion, in the larger and more expansive sense of being human.

Yes, Monfils has had a disappointing career if measured strictly by championship standards. He still hasn’t reached a major final. We can see — and have seen — the potential in his body, the possibilities of his game.

Woulda, shoulda, coulda.

Oh, what might have been.

Yes, we know that Monfils has fallen short in the cold, narrow world of merciless sports analysis. Yet, as a human being, Monfils — who has a winning personality and has won millions of fans by being open, vulnerable, and joyful — has always been a No. 1 seed in the eyes of the world.

Part of what makes Monfils so special as a person is that open vulnerability noted above. This willingness to bare his soul in total honesty and nakedness was embodied one year ago at the Australian Open. Monfils lost in the first round. He suffered what was, at the time, a seventh consecutive match loss on tour. He was mired in a massive slump.

He poured out his emotions and did not try to mask them:

“I lost, I have no confidence. I’m playing bad. I can’t serve, I’m making unforced errors, I’m six meters behind the baseline. I don’t feel well and you can see it. I know I’ve lost a lot and it hurts. The worst thing is that I’m working like a dog but it’s not working.

“I’D LIKE TO STAND UP AND TELL MYSELF THAT THIS NIGHTMARE IS OVER BUT THE TRUTH IS I DON’T KNOW WHEN IT WILL STOP.

The world wanted to hug Gael Monfils in that moment.

It was, in a purely professional sense, a rock-bottom occasion for him.

One year later, look at the man: He made a major quarterfinal. He stared down Matteo Berrettini, a major finalist, and after falling behind by two sets, took the Italian to a fifth set. Monfils couldn’t fully climb the mountain, but the mere act of striving, and doing so well in the process — having traveled such an enormous distance since his bleak cri de coeur from February of 2021 — was itself a triumph.

Gael Monfils was lost, but now he has been found. Amazing Grace, even in defeat.

Gael Monfils has surely given millions on this planet a reason to believe.

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