On a sweltering day, boos of reproach reigned down on Gael Monfils, who looked as lost as a weary traveler without a roadmap.
Pressure had its way with Monfils today.
One of tennis’ top showmen turned in a freak show performance as Novak Djokovic continued his career-long mastery of Monfils.
In a bizarre and disjointed match played in brutal heat and humidity, Djokovic deconstructed the flat Frenchman, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, to advance to his sixth US Open final in the last seven years.
“I had phases when I was pissed off, phases when I was entertained by what he’s doing and phases where I was upset with myself for allowing him to do whatever he does to disturb my game,” said Djokovic, who raised his record to 13-0 against Monfils. “So I went through it all. It was a great theater experience today.”
It is Djokovic’s 21st career Grand Slam final, second in the Open Era to Roger Federer, who has contested 28 Grand Slam finals.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion will face either two-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka or 2014 US Open finalist Kei Nishikori in Sunday afternoon’s final.
Though Djokovic was in cruise control through the first two sets, the journey to his 19th Grand Slam final in his last 25 majors became jarring.
Admittedly disturbed at times by Monfils’ slacker shtick, the defending champion grew unnerved and erratic after building a two-set, two lead love, took treatment for both his left shoulder and right shoulder, dropped five straight games in one slide and shredded his shirt in anger at one point.
And he was the stable one on court.
One of the game’s most charismatic players played purposefully listless tennis for two sets before rallying to take the third set.
Most players try to lift their level against champions. Monfils resorted to the radical approach of trying to drag Djokovic’s level down pushing no-pace balls short in the court aiming to gunk up the gears in his opponent’s well-oiled baseline game.
Given the fact Djokovic was the first men’s player in the Open Era to reach a Grand Slam semifinal following three retirements and/or walkovers, it was puzzling Monfils did not try to physically test the top seed, who has taken treatment for wrist, arm and shoulder injuries, or at the very least fuel the capacity crowd with positive energy.
Winless in 12 prior matches with Djokovic, Monfils defended the tank as a tactic after the match saying he had to take radical action after getting blown out.
“The first question is like you’re not competing,” Monfils said. “Fuck yes, I’m competing. Even I’m like at my best actually. The guy is too good. I just have to change.
“As I always say, the change is guts… I think I’m gutsy to try that against the world No. 1… You know, it was a great strategy, I think.”
The 6’4″ Frenchman’s astounding athleticism can make him a magical player, but his tendency to push and run rather than assert his gifts offensively can make him a maddening player as well. Today, Monfils believed Djokovic was striking so cleanly he had no choice but to try to win ugly.
It got unsightly quickly.
A jittery Monfils poked successive double faults to donate the break and a 2-0 lead. Sweating profusely, Monfils was dripping double faults. Dumping his fourth double-fault, Monfils was left staring down a bleak love-4 hole after a mere 13 minutes. The free-spirited Frenchman saved a set point with a 120 mph ace, eventually getting on the board with a three-ace hold.
Oddly, Monfils began shoveling back no-pace, one-handed chip backhands after his first hold. That tank tactic helped him save three more set points then dragged Djokovic into the malaise as he double-faulted away the break. Bizarrely, the anti-effort play in which Monfils poked flat-footed shots and appeared disinterested in competing actually earned him two more break points—and the annoyance of Djokovic.
John McEnroe, a master of playing tactical cards and mental tricks during his prime, called the strategy “bordering on unprofessional” on ESPN. Djokovic shook off the break points, eventually serving out the 36-minute opener.
Opening the second set with the best exchange of the match, Djokovic flicked a high leaping backhand volley, but failed to put away two more backhand volleys. A leaping Monfils banged a backhand down the line that collided with the tape, changed direction and plopped over.
Gulping in deep breaths between points, Monfils looked winded and played disorientated points at times sometimes rushing several feet inside the baseline to return. Djokovic ran off eight straight points, breaking at love for 2-1 when Monfils netted a high volley.
Stretching his opponent with a backhand, Djokovic stepped in and drilled a forehand pass down the line closing a set that was painful, at times, to watch. The top seed snatched a two-set lead after only one hour of play.
When Monfils dumped his eighth double fault to gift wrap the break at the start of the third set incited the wrath of the crowd, which jeered and booed the man who has been a beloved competitor in New York.
“It’s part of the sport. I think for sure people was expecting a tougher battle,” Monfils said. “And then it was strange because maybe (fans) will listen to commentary and say I’m unprofessional, I’m poor whatever. So it gets very quick to people.
“If I have a mic I would say to the audience stop saying that, I’m unprofessional. The guy is killing me. I’m just embracing the fact that guy is too good for me and I try to switch strategy. Then somehow I had this small opportunity and I get it and then I think the crowd was much better.”
That jarring reception jolted Monfils into action. He shoveled a forehand pass to break back for 2-all the crowd erupted as Monfils raised a clenched fist toward his box. Two games later, Monfils made a flying backhand volley then drew a wild forehand, breaking again for his fourth consecutive game.
“I know what to expect,” Djokovic said. “But again, even having that kind of awareness and coming into a match, it still happens that, you know, these kind of things that he does don’t go away unnoticed, you know. Sometimes it can disturb you; sometimes it can bring a smile to your face. It really depends on you, how you react to that.”
Down 2-5, Djokovic took massage treatment on his left shoulder during the changeover then staved off a set point in strange four drop shot game.
Serving for the set, Monfils was down triple break point yet roared back to reel off five straight points snatching the game and a set with a screaming backhand winner.
A disgusted Djokovic, who channeled Andrew Ilie tearing at the neck of his white shirt, played the final point with the shredded shirt before completely tearing it off and taking more treatment.
Hunching over between points, Monfils dodged a time violation warning from chair umpire Eva Asderaki Moore and denied three break points for the second straight game for 1-all in the fourth set.
Sliding into a flicked forehand, Djokovic curled another pass for double break point. This time there was no great escape as Monfils put a forehand into the tape. Djokovic edged out to a 3-1 lead.
In another plot twist, the top seed spun a double fault into net handing back the break then taking a medical time-out for massage to his right shoulder and neck.
Meanwhile, Monfils, continuing to lean on his racket like a cane, tried a surprise serve-and-volley but netted the volley. The third straight break put Djokovic in front, 4-2.
On match point, Djokovic brought a merciful finish to a funky match swatting a forehand return winner down the line. Monfils did not move for the ball.
“In the fourth, I just managed to hold my nerves and be patient and close out the match in good fashion. So I have an extra day now to recover and get ready for the finals, which is definitely where I desire to be when I come to a Grand Slam.”