NEW YORK – Drop shots, ripped shirts, shoulder massages, Coca-Cola cans and more—it was all part of a dizzying display of tennis during the first U.S. Open men’s semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils on Friday.
The spectacle on court rattled the Arthur Ashe crowd, the players and surely all who were watching at home. But in the end, top-seeded Djokovic advanced to his seventh U.S. Open final, beating No. 10-seed Monfils 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 in one of the most unusual contests of the tournament. Tennis fans are no stranger to entertainment in matches involving Monfils, but typically the show involves the Frenchman and his racquet. Friday's match involved much more.
Djokovic, playing in his 10th-straight semifinal at the U.S. Open, raced out to a quick 5-0 lead after just 18 minutes. But Monfils, who had not dropped a set at the U.S. Open this year coming into the match, avoided the quick first-set bagel to get on the board. The Frenchman’s body language and lackadaisical play made it seem like he was trying to tank the game with Djokovic serving up 5-1, but the Serb didn’t let him, hitting several errors of his own to give Monfils the break.
"It was very quick 5-0....why I will stay and lose 6-0 and not change anything?" Monfils said after the match. "So, yeah, definitely I try to get in his head. Try to create something new for him to see. And that was it. At the end, that's why I think it was necessary, and I almost get back to the first set."
“It was a strange match, as it always is, I guess, when you play Gael, who is very unpredictable player,” Djokovic said. “I was completely caught off guard when he just stood there and chipped the ball back and didn't do much…. But that's Gael. That's the way he plays now. That's the way he played always. He loves to come up with a variety in his game, and the defense shots. He loves long rallies.”
Ultimately, Djokovic was able to serve out the set despite Monfils’ strange strategy, which John McEnroe describe on air as "one of the greatest lack of efforts in a men’s semifinal I’ve ever seen.”
After the match, Monfils was asked about McEnroe’s commentary during the match, in which he also called the Frenchman “unprofessional” for his play during the opening set. Monfils said he has nothing against McEnroe and no sour history with him—“I'm very sad to learn that such a legend criticize me”—but defended the tactics he used against Djokovic during the match.
“When I decide to play like that for half a set I knew it is gonna be different. But at the end I'm not playing for those people. I play for myself. I try to win, you know,” he said. “At the end, everybody have an opinion of something that not in my body, not in my mind…When the guy is too good, you change. Not academic, but I try to be better.”
Djokovic cruised in the second set, winning in 29 minutes as Monfils hit 11 unforced errors to Djokovic’s one.
The third set proved to be a lot less straightforward. After Djokovic broke Monfils to open the set and secured a 2-0 lead, Monfils went on to win the next five games to go up 5-2. On the changeover, Djokovic called the trainer out to massage his left shoulder, but he was able to hold his serve and put the pressure back on Monfils to win the set. From 0-40 down and serving for the set, Monfils saved three break points and earn a set point and force a fourth set with a backhand winner.
In the fourth set, the conditions—a late afternoon start with 96-degree temperatures on court with more than 50% humidity—seemed to affect both players. At one point, Monfils ordered a can of Coca-Cola in hopes of supplying some energy, while Djokovic grabbed a snack to refuel after double faulting to give Monfils the break for 3-2.
Shortly after, Djokovic took a medical timeout as trainer worked on his right shoulder and Monfils briefly left the court.
In the end, after two hours and 32 minutes, Djokovic battled through the heat—and the oddities of the match—to close out a four-sets win and advance to the final. Monfils, who was playing in only his second Grand Slam semifinal, said he knew before the match he would employ his unconventional strategy.
"As I say, I have done it because I want to win. I just want to find a solution," he said. "Sorry if it wasn't academic, but at the end, when you change, you change with what you got. What I got is my speed. I got a little bit my instinct and flair and to show down the game, to make him play, to make him come in. That was my flair, and I hit the shot. At the end it was just too good."
With the loss on Friday, Monfils remains unsuccessful in 13 career meetings against Djokovic. In Sunday's championship match, Djokovic looks to become the first back-to-back U.S. Open winner since Federer in 2007-08. He’ll face the winner of Friday’s second semifinal match between No. 3-seed Stan Wawrinka and No. 6-seed Kei Nishikori.
“You know, he loves that entertainment part. He loves to go left and right and jump and slide and all these things. He's very athletic. I think he's basically putting everything on the display on the tennis court,” Djokovic said of Monfils. “At the end of the day, I thought it was a good match. We played a four-set match. I think the crowd enjoyed it in the end.”