Monfils Creates Circus Beating No 1 Paddle Tennis Player

Posted on March 3, 2006

By Richard Vach, Senior Writer

Thursday began with a downer at The Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas, with No. 2 seed Nicolas Kiefer pulling out just before the first match of the day with sinusitis. But the day was rescued by Tennis Channel cameras, "Tennispalooza" and hundreds of fans scurrying to an outside court to see the No. 1 paddle tennis player in the world toppled by a paddle tennis neophyte and ATP player competing in his first-ever event.

French teen Gael "Force" Monfils, seeded No. 6 this week in the Vegas ATP event before an early exit, showed he is more a force to be reckoned with in paddle tennis after defeating the "No. 1 paddle tennis player in the world" Wednesday after only a few days of playing the sport.

Monfils received a doubles wildcard into the Paddle Tennis Championships played on-site with coach Thierry Champion, but then became so enamored of the sport after playing an exhibition that he inquired about getting a wildcard into the singles.

Paddle tennis officials thought the late entry would be unfair to other competitors, so they offered him a spot in the singles qualifying event. So on Wednesday morning, Monfils found himself at an alternate site located 10 minutes away from the tournament grounds, playing a paddle tennis qualifying match.

Which he won.

The teen was then inserted into the main draw Wednesday opposite the "No. 1 player in the world" (though paddle tennis officials admitted there is no "official international governing body" for paddle tennis rankings), the man tournament officials referred to as "The Roger Federer of paddle tennis," world champion Scott Freedman.

"(He is) recognized as the world's finest all-around player in paddle tennis history," states Freedman's website, which for the uninitiated was emblazoned on his cap during play: "Scott has been the #1 Ranked player every year throughout his illustrious career. Scott has won the World's Men's Singles Championships 19 times, The World Men's Doubles Championships 16 times and the world Mixed Doubles Championships 14 times. Scott is the winningest player in the history of the sport with 185 professional Titles and is the only player in the sport's history to capture the "Grand Slam" of paddle tennis, to win the The World Championships in Men's Singles, Men's Doubles, and mixed doubles in the same calendar year."

A pretty heady meeting for a 19-year-old Frenchman who just picked up the game days earlier as a lark. In fact Monfils was beaten in a practice paddle tennis match earlier by Beth Bellamy, currently the No. 1-ranked woman in paddle tennis and wife of Tennis Channel Open Tournament Director Steve Bellamy.

Tennis Channel commentator Jimmy Arias had played with Monfils in an exhibition the day before, and prior to the match with the No. 1-ranked Freedman said Monfils had a chance.

"Obviously he's a competitor," said Arias, who played paddle tennis doubles with Monfils and some paddle-tour players in exhibition doubles. "I'd never played paddle tennis until yesterday and I did alright, it translates. I feel like (Monfils) has some serious talent. He has more jack on the ball than the pros out there."

While Monfils competed in his typical tennis attire, Freedman exhibited the questionable combination of no shirt and full-length black stretch pants, which drew the ire of one front-row paddle tennis insider sitting in the bleachers.

"He can't play without a shirt! That's against the rules!" said the woman. "That's Scotty though, always has to be the rebel."

The rebellious yet nervous Freedman was broken in the first game of the match by Monfils, who would take the American's underhand delivery and charge the net behind a two-handed backhand. The break of serve and the world No. 1's shocking 0-1 deficit brought murmurs from fans near the tournament table until it was explained by officials that in paddle tennis, players are expected to break their opponents serve, and lose their own serve due to the underhand nature of the service delivery.

The "Roger Federer of paddle tennis"'s reputation remained intact.

Freedman settled down some and ran out to a 3-1 lead in the beginning of the best-of-three set contest. Monfil's coach Champion stood outside the fence off to the side where his pupil would walk to during changeover for advice in French.

"We don't know what chance he has, he can win but he is playing a little bit tentative," Champion said of his charge in the first set.

"They are both tense, actually," said the laughing Champion, remarking on the ever-growing crowd as the Stadium announcer told fans of the event on Court 16. "I think this is good for the event. It is another game with a racquet like tennis, he just loves it, he is very competitive. For the promise to his game and the enjoyment, I think it will be good for everybody."

Someone it wasn't good for in the opening set was Freedman. Monfils got his break (or reverse-break) of serve back, and Freedman suddenly changed from "The Roger Federer of paddle tennis" to "The Lleyton Hewitt of paddle tennis," screaming "C'mon! Let's go!" after winning key points and shaking his fist in the direction of the bleachers.

Monfils friend Andy Murray joined the onlookers mid-set, finding a great deal of amusement in the Frenchman competing in front of the vociferous crowd against the shirtless man in the stretch pants.

After winning a big point that would lead to a first-set tiebreak, Freedman passionately shouted "Yes! C'mon God Dammit, close it!" which caused Murray to break up in laughter.

Monfils won the next point and a voice from the bleachers shouted "C'mon Scott, let's go!", causing Murray a second later to follow with a punchline-like delivery, shouting "Good shot, Gael!" before suppressing a laugh.

"He's actually doing pretty well," said Murray with amusement. "I've played this actually a lot when I was in Spain, but this is not proper paddle tennis. It's absolutely huge in Spain and it's played in a glass box outside on an artificial grasscourt with these bats, and they play with the normal tennis balls as well. There are more people watching this than the doubles on the stadium."

Which there weren't, but point taken as the crowd had grown to overflow the bleacher seats, with people now standing to watch four-deep on one side of the court and lining up on the other side as well.

As the first-set tiebreak approached, the stoic-if-not-flashy Monfils apparently grew tired of Freedman's histrionics and decided to show some emotion of his own, making an "Oooh!" face for the crowd after cutting off a passing shot with a short-angle volley, and again a few points later when at the net he absorbed an overhead from the No. 1-ranked American for a drop volley winner.

A scream of "Allez!" on a big point moments later from Monfils drew laughter from Murray and a roar from the crowd. Freedman responded later by trying to take Monfil's head off on a short running shot with the Frenchman and the net.

Monfils gave the American a questioning glance, and the game was on.

Monfils broke for a 5-4 lead and huddled with his coach on the sidelines, with a wide-eyed look reflecting the intensity of the competition and the cheering throng.

The crowd chanting "Ole! Ole, ole, ole!", and a pumped-up Monfils looking to his coach for encouragement after every point, with the French teen saved two set points to win the first-set tiebreak, celebrating with a Mick Jagger-like strut as the crowd erupted.

"He's tight as a drum," said Arias of Freedman.

In the second set Freedman regained his form to cruise to a 6-2 win before the third set again notched-up the drama.

Early in the third set Freedman started to cramp, allowing Monfils to run out a 4-1 lead. While Freedman received treatment courtside for cramps from his wife, a registered nurse, Monfils brought a howl from the crowd when, in reply, he started doing military-style push-ups on the court.

"These guys aren't necessarily used to this level of competition," said paddle tournament director Henry Borenstein. "It's not like they're training every day like these tennis players."

By now Monfils' corner included fellow French player Julien Benneteau and other French coaches, along with other players such as American Phillip Simmonds and competitors from the women's challenger.

The cramping "Roger Federer of paddle tennis" made a valiant effort in the last two games, but the superbly-athletic Monfils was not about to allow a comeback out of pity. Closing out the victory on his third match point, the teen celebrated with a spinning '80s-style breakdance on the court.

"Gael just played better than I did," Freedman said after the match in a joint interview with Monfils and The Tennis Channel's Mieke Buchan. "He came out and put a lot of pressure on me, he has good strokes and good feel for the game. No excuses, I came to play and Gael beat me."

Monfils had to return to the court approximately an hour later for his first-round doubles with coach Champion, where Freedman gained some revenge with partner Sol Hauptman, handing the French pair a loss.

Nonetheless, happy with his 'career-first win over a No. 1' breakthrough, Monfils says he is now looking at bringing home some hardware from Vegas in the form of a paddle tennis trophy.

"I am going to try to win this tournament," Monfils said. "I beat the No. 1, so why not?"

And Andy Murray?

"I definitely want to play this next year," Murray said.

Richard Vach is a senior writer for and can currently be seen on The Tennis Channel's "Tennis Insiders: Super Insiders" episodes.