Gael Monfils celebrates

Photo : Brenton Edwards/AFP

The news came so quietly in the early days of the new year that you may have missed it. In France, tennis fans were surprised and delighted.

After several years with partners ASICS (apparel and shoes) and Wilson (racquets), Gaël Monfils made the move to Artengo. For the next five years, the racquet sports brand founded by French sporting goods retailer Decathlon will be the official partner of one of the most popular, likeable and entertaining players ever to grace the courts.

Photo : Eurosports.fr

Gaël Monfils isn’t a rising star anymore but he remains the French no.1 and World No.20.

He is the logical choice for the French firm, which is aiming to get more eyeballs on screens and centre courts around the world. Monfils’ charisma and spectacular tennis put him front and centre (court), and his engaging social media presence—especially as half of a tennis power couple with Elina Svitolina—gives him tremendous visibility.

The news is of considerable importance, since new players in the equipment manufacturers game are pretty rare.

When it comes to their racquets, most of the WTA and ATP Top 100 athletes turn to Wilson, Head, Babolat and Yonex, as well as Tecnifibre, Prince, Volkl and Dunlop. You see a lot of Nike, adidas, ASICS, Lotto, FILA, Yonex, New Balance and Mizuno tennis shoes and apparel by Nike, adidas, ASICS, Lotto, FILA, Lacoste, UNIQLO.

Among the newer sporting goods manufacturers (to my knowledge) is Tecnifibre, which is also French. It was more of a supporting character until it signed a Russian player named Daniil Medvedev who found his way to World No.2. Until his arrival, the biggest names at Tecnifibre were Daria Kasatkina, John Millman, Jérémy Chardy, Denis Istomin, Janko Tipsarevic, Ruben Bemelmans and Grégoire Barrère. Nothing to write home about but still a step ahead of brands like Prince, Dunlop and Volkl that once ruled the rankings.

Also pretty rare is an athlete signing with the same partner for racquets, apparel and shoes.

I sat down with Montréal-based marketer Hugues Léger, who worked in France with brands like AB InBev (drink and brewing company) and British American Tobacco. When he returned to Québec about a decade ago, he worked in sports broadcasting (TVA Sports) and professional sports (CF Montréal). He now covers soccer and tennis on his own platform, Victoire média.

“It’s definitely a win-win partnership,” said Léger, right off the bat. “Decathlon is the country’s largest sports retailer. It has 330 points of sale in France and 1,700 around the world, with a turnover of 12.4 billion euros [C$17.7B]. It isn’t about premium brands but it still sells high-quality products and invests a lot in innovation, in all sports. Artengo is one of its brands.”

Gaël Monfils would be the first to admit that he’s in the twilight of his career, and choosing to play with a racquet manufactured by an unfamiliar brand isn’t a huge gamble. As for Artengo, it has secured exceptional visibility in France, where it already has good footing through Decathlon, and internationally, wherever Gaël goes.

“Like Roger Federer with UNIQLO, Monfils will likely continue to wear and use Artengo after he’s retired in the many exhibition matches he’ll be invited to. In Monfils, Decathlon has acquired a first-class ambassador and prestigious consultant for the next phases of its development in the tennis sector,” Léger added.

The marketing specialist believes the generalist’s move into racquet sports is in contrast to the approach taken by specialists like Nike, which swooshed into the fitness and wellness markets a few years ago.

“Everyone wants a piece of the pie. Apparel companies like UNIQLO, H&M and Zara are developing technical lines because it’s a major market with huge potential. Closer to home, Vancouver-based lululemon athletica has entered the fray through its partnership with Leylah Fernandez. It wants to expand and boost its revenues with customers who follow tennis,” he explained.

According to Forbes, the lululemon—Leylah collaboration is also win-win, since Fernandez already wore the clothes and asked her father and agent to approach the brand to become an ambassador.

Leylah Fernandez serve
Photo : Martin Sidorjak

But let’s get back to Gaël Monfils.

He didn’t waste any time and made the investment even more worthwhile by winning the event at which he premiered the new gear, including his TR960 Control Tour racquet. On January 9 in Adelaide, he bettered No.29 Karen Khachanov (6-4, 6-4) to win his first crown since the pandemic and get back into the ATP Top 20.

With his 11th winner’s trophy, he also tied Guy Forget as the Frenchman with the most singles titles.

As always, his on-court antics made for a great highlight reel.

Gael Monfils holding a trophy
Photo : ATP Tour

Since then, another athlete joined Artengo: Daria Kasatkina of Russia. She also made her new partner proud with two semifinal appearances in Melbourne and Sydney this month. Armed with her TR990 Power Pro, she overpowered Sofia Kenin, Elise Mertens and Garbine Muguruza, all in straight sets, before falling to the eventual champion and World No.6 Paula Badosa at the Sydney Tennis Classic.

Kasatkina ready to return serve
Photo : WTA

Monfils the Younger

Gaël isn’t the only Monfils with a passion for tennis. His younger sister Maélie, who turns 17 on January 25, also knows her way around a court.

Maelie Monfils hits a backhand

With Monfils the Elder quickly approaching retirement, will she be the next LaMonf? 

There’s no doubt about her potential.

Maëlie Monfils is currently no.198 in the ITF World Tennis Tour Junior rankings. She won her first title in 2018 at the age of 13 and then went on to earn two more, in 2019 and 2021. In 2020, she competed in 17 tournaments and 44 matches to cumulate a 28–16 record.

In the family business of tennis, it’s now up to Maëlie to make a (first) name for herself. And she’s chomping at the bit. While she loves her older brother, she wants to build her own career and step out of his shadow.

“We’re not the same person at all. Still, people ask me about his life, and I can’t answer. I don’t always know where he is or what he’s doing. That’s what’s most annoying,” she said in a French blog post in summer 2020.

“Sometimes, when I tell people I’m his sister, their attitude changes. Some are jealous or pretend to know him. But it’s not all negative. I’m on the phone with him a lot. We talk about tennis, and he gives me advice,” she added.

Headshot of Maelie Monfils
Photo : WTA

Who does she look up to? Roger Federer, who “does amazing things”, Garbine Muguruza and, of course, Gaël Monfils, her very first role model. Quoted in Le Parisien newspaper three years ago, she said: “He’s my brother, and it’d be cool to do better than him.”

To make that happen, she’s going to need 12 titles, 24 final appearances, a career-high ranking of No.5 and a Slam semi-final.

Special K

Thanasi Kokkinakis paces hands in his head in disbelief after winning a title
Photo : Sporting News

I thought I’d follow up last week’s holiday tale with a January fairy tale.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, where animals like the kangaroo, koala, kiwi and kowari really loved the letter K, a man with a tennis racquet and four Ks in his name had a moment of glory in his hometown. His name was Thanasi Kokkinakis.

Born in Adelaide, Australia, Kokkinakis is the promising young man who took about nine years to fulfill the hopes placed in the immense potential he displayed at two 2013 junior Slam finals at the age of 17.

On January 15, he won his first ATP title at the age of 25, in Adelaide, no less.

Thanasi Kokkinakis gets down to kiss the Adaliade court
Photo : RDS

While his fellow Australians and most of planet tennis were distracted by what was going down in Melbourne, Kokkinakis was living one of the greatest moments of his career.

Two years after his junior Slam success, he won his first Challenger in Bordeaux. In the first five months of 2015, he rose from No.149 to No.68. Hopes were high, and anything was possible.

But in 2016, he played only one match, at the Rio Olympics, and fell to No.1013. The following year, he played 13 matches but still fought his way to the ATP 250 final in Los Cabos, where he defeated Tiafoe, Polansky, Fritz and Berdych. He added two US Challenger titles to his trophy case in 2018.

Since then, it’s been a series of Challenger events, until that fateful week in early 2022.

For now, there isn’t a next chapter, as Kokkinakis was outplayed in the first round of the AO just a few days later. Still, his win in Adelaide will likely remain a highlight that should more than compensate for any future setbacks.

Email: privard@tenniscanada.com

Twitter: @paul6rivard

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