Give Novak Djokovic a lot of credit. Gael Monfils finds a way to make every match he plays about himself, and that can be both disconcerting and frustrating—especially when the Frenchman is at his volatile, acrobatic, attention-grabbing best. This, after all, is a guy who knows how to play the crowd like a fiddle (just ask John Isner).
But Djokovic once again showed the patience, resolve, and athleticism to outlast Monfils, who was at or near his best for long periods in this Shanghai quarterfinal showdown. As a result, he weathered the Monfils storm to win an extremely competitive, riveting match, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-4.
The first four games in this one were all service breaks, and the warp speed, sustained rallies (five of the first 14 points went 15 shots or longer) a good indication of what was to come. Time and again throughout this match, Monfils found a way to out-defend one of the game’s greatest defenders, and to out counter-punch one of game’s great counter-punchers. In the end, the factor that may have decided it, apart from Monfils' career-long habit of so beating himself up with his acrobatics that he runs of steam, was Djokovic’s willingness to force a conclusion to rallies.
The Serb ventured forth to the net 22 times in the match, and won 18 of those points—many of them with drop or severely angled cut volleys that forced Monfils to sprint half the length of the court to retrieve. When he got there, Monfils often performed one of the trademark splits that takes such a physical toll, even as it elicts all those ooohs and aaaahs from a crowd. What do they care about the price, anyway?
That net-approach stat tells just half the story, though, because despite hitting the ball deep and hard for long stretches today, Monfils himself went to the net just four times (winning two times). Sure, it’s a baseliner’s game today, but Monfils’ utter lack of a net game is one reason he isn’t one of the elite players, but a perpetual second-level contender who keeps people asking, “How come this guy hasn’t won more?”
But let’s be fair to him here; back in May, Monfils was ranked No. 119, partly because of the latest episode in his career-long struggle with injury. He’s back up to No. 42 now, and today he was at his spectacular, explosive best—as attested by his play in the first-set tiebreaker.
We reached that critical juncture in the match because after those four consecutive breaks at the start, neither man got a look at a break point until the 11th game, in which Djokovic stared one down by blasting a cross-court backhand winner to end a long rally. After a Monfils hold, the men played one of the best tiebreakers in recent memory.
Two of the points in that tiebreaker were so close that Hawkeye had to be consulted to discover the truth, and in both cases the server’s advantage was upheld. The only mini-break was the one Monfils collected with Djokovic serving at 3-4 down. After a long rally, Djokovic seemed to run out of steam and he clubbed a backhand into the net. Although he followed with an ace to stay in range at 4-5, Monfils won the next two points to take the set.
However, Djokovic struck fast and hard in the first game of the second set, and Monfils, who ought to know enough by now to avoid such mental lapses, was broken. Things got a little western in the fifth game when Monfils, hoping to stay within one break, was warned for taking too much time between points. He pled his case, arguing that after doing splits and other stunt moves he needs more time to recover, but the umpire wasn’t buying it. He reminded Monfils that everyone plays by the same rules.
Although Monfils would hold that game, he kept jabbering and mocking the chair umpire. Feeling wronged must have lit his afterburners, for he earned a break point in the next game. But Djokovic escaped it thanks to a forehand volley winner and went on to hold for 4-2.
Monfils might have blown his emotional stack during that tempestuous period, and in the ensuing moments he may have blown an abdominal muscle, too. He suddenly played sloppy, distracted tennis in the next game to give a Djokovic another break and a 5-2 lead. Monfils took a long injury timeout during the changeover but, even though Djokovic served out the second set when they returned, La Monf wasn’t done just yet.
The level rose again through the first six games of the third set, neither player able to break. But in the seventh game, Monfils lost a 30-0 lead and ultimately netted a break-point backhand to fall behind, 3-4. Monfils looked dead on his feet in the next game, an easy hold that ran Djokovic’s lead to 5-3.
The ninth game produced one final classic Monfils moment. Another double fault plunged him to 30-40—match point—but Monfils reeled off three straight points ending with an ace to hold for 4-5. It was no use, though, as Djokovic brought the hammer down to serve out the match with no further incident.