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Australian Open

Gael Monfils offers poignant portrait of pandemic emotions

Matt Zemek

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A few especially notable events occurred on Day 1 of the 2021 Australian Open, the first Aussie Open in more than 100 years to start in the month of February.

Denis Shapovalov outlasted Jannik Sinner in a compelling five-set battle. Shapovalov stayed the course and took advantage of the fact that Sinner had played a lot of matches over the previous week.

Bianca Andreescu — same as it always was — won a three-set match, her remarkable comfort zone at major tournaments. So what if she had been sidelined for a long time? Her ability to win a tight match clearly remains intact.

Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic were dominant.

Grigor Dimitrov beat Marin Cilic.

Venus Williams, 40, and Serena Williams, 39, won major-tournament matches.

Yet, the most poignant moment of this first day in Melbourne Park came from a man who didn’t win a match.

Gael Monfils lost to Emil Ruusuvuori in five sets and — after the match — said he is living through a “nightmare.”

In that moment, Monfils reacted and spoke like a broken-down man.

Some might look at this and say that Monfils, a millionaire, just got a check of over $50,000. He was able to travel to Australia to do his job. How dare he refer to his situation as a nightmare in the midst of a pandemic?

Instead of shaming anyone who might react that way, let’s step back from that posture and simply say that in a pandemic, emotions have spilled over and will continue to do so. What matters less is perfectly calibrating our emotions. What matters more is allowing ourselves and each other to emote. We need to not repress our emotions in a time such as this. We need to be more charitable in our emotional appraisals and evaluations of others, not less.

Monfils isn’t a politician. He isn’t a health official. Those people need to make necessary decisions and provide leadership in this crisis. They can’t whine about how tough their jobs are — they signed up for leadership positions and can’t say “don’t criticize me,” as Monfils said after his loss to Ruusuvuori.

Monfils isn’t in a leadership position. He’s just a worker trying to do a job, and — at the moment — failing to do it well. If he says he is living through a nightmare, we can all let that one slide. Pandemic emotions, pandemic frustrations, have poured out of millions of human beings in this bizarre, confusing, distorted time, and they will continue to do so.

We can all look at how our lives have been halted, changed, or smothered in the pandemic, and empathize with Monfils instead of criticizing him. At the very least — this is not asking too much — we don’t have to like what he said, but we can refrain from pouncing on him. That gesture of neutrality seems more than reasonable (and doable) in a time such as this.

Is Monfils feeling the strain not only of losing matches, but not having the regularity of human touch billions of other world inhabitants have to deal with right now? That’s a purely speculative question with no clear-cut answer… but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of his inner experience.

Pandemic emotions aren’t going to be neat and tidy. Let’s allow them to spill out without judgment. Gael Monfils reminded us of this need on Day 1 of an Australian Open unlike any other.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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