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Simona Halep advanced to Round 2 of the Citi Open after dropping Sloane Stephens in straight sets.
USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON — Wearing the same bright blue shirt, Gael Monfils was followed around Rock Creek Park Tennis Center Tuesday by a pack of kids. No. 22 on the ATP tour, he has cherished his time at this venue.    

Last year, after dropping the first set of the final 7-5 to Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic, Monfils went 7-6(6), 6-4 to win the Citi Open. It was his first ATP World Tour 500 title and sixth overall. A few months later, in November 2016, he reached a career-high ranking of No. 6 in the world. 

This week, he’s back in D.C. to defend his title. Monfils is the No. 6 seed and joins three other former champions in one of the tournament’s deepest fields in years.

“A strong field is even better. If you can get through this tournament, it means you’re ready for the (U.S.) Open,” the 30-year-old Frenchman said.

The tournament benefits the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, and as part of his reign as men’s singles champion, Monfils held a Q&A session with students.

They peppered him with questions about how to achieve the dream of playing on the ATP tour. He detailed his practice plans, diet and prematch playlists. In turn, he also revealed his dream for when time runs out on his tennis career.

Monfils wants to be a watchmaker. 

“I’ve been around watch factories and had the chance to visit some factories. It became a dream,” said Monfils, who has lived in Switzerland for a dozen years or so.

“I started to learn a little bit, and I started to pay more interest in watches, and now it’s been 10 years in this industry. I really hope to do something in the watch industry.” 

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As he continued to get involved, in 2014, Monfils became a brand ambassador for De Bethune watches, according to the Swiss luxury brand.  

The career path is an unusual sequel for a tennis player. Though Monfils doesn’t see watchmaking directly affecting his game, there are some parallels.  

“I wouldn’t say it helps my tennis game, but it helps my creativity,” said Monfils, who has dazzled fans with trick shots over the years. 

His style of play has been acrobatic, unconventional and risky at times. He has won six titles, despite reaching the finals 26 times. 

“I know that if I’m 100% mentally on, I’m tough to beat,” he…