NEW YORK—Asked to describe his 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 semifinal win over Gael Monfils on Friday, Novak Djokovic said it could be summed up in one word: “Humid.” He may have been referring mainly to the weather—it was a sticky summer day—but it served as a pretty fair description of the weirdness that had transpired on court. The heat went to both guys’ heads, and bodies, and together they produced one of the true anti-epics of 2016.
Djokovic was edgy to start. He asked chair umpire Eva Asderaki twice to have the lights in Ashe Stadium turned off—“It’s the middle of the day”—and told her to “Pay attention a little” after a close call went against him. But Djokovic was a paragon of normalcy compared to Monfils.
The Frenchman had spent the previous five rounds, as well as the better part of eight months, making many of us believe that he was a reformed man; now that he was 30, it seemed, the show was out and the grind was in. On Friday, it only took Monfils a little more than an hour to remind us again that—first for worse, and then for better—Gael is still Gael, and will always be Gael.
At the start, Monfils’ timing was off on everything. Double faulting and shanking forehands, he went down 0-5 in 16 minutes. Then, with Djokovic serving at 5-1, something strange happened. It looked like Monfils, standing in the middle of the court and pushing the ball back listlessly, was trying to concede the set. Except that Djokovic wouldn’t give it to him. Thrown off by Monfils’ lack of effort, he double-faulted, lost his rhythm and was broken. After the next changeover, Monfils continued to push. Why change a winning game?
Even when Djokovic closed out the first set, Monfils stuck to his weird ways in the second. When he wasn’t poking the ball back from behind the baseline, he was rushing headlong into the net, often on second serves. The only thing Monfils wasn’t doing was playing the levelheaded attacking game that had put him in his first U.S. Open semifinal. He seemed determined to pull the rug out from under anyone who believed that he was a changed man. He also seemed determined to agitate the Ashe crowd; when he went down a break in the third set, the crowd showered him with boos.
“For sure people are not ready to see that,” Monfils said afterward of his “unorthodox” approach.
Still, he maintained that there was a method to his madness all along.
“Definitely, I try to get in his head,” Monfils said of Djokovic. “You know, try to create something new for him, you know, to see. When the guy is too good— you know, playing clean and you’re playing very bad, I mean not that good—you need to change.”
“F-ck yes, I’m competing,” Monfils finally said, raising his voice.
If only he had been as energized on court as he was in his press conference.
Whether Monfils’ rope-a-dope repertoire was a tactic or a capitulation, Djokovic admitted that it had an effect on him.
“I was completely caught off guard when he just stood there and chipped the ball back and didn’t do much,” Djokovic said. “But that’s Gael.”
Djokovic, it seemed, was just like any other tennis fan watching Monfils. Asked whether he “pissed you off today,” he smiled.
“Well, I had different phases, I must admit,” Djokovic said. “I had phases when I was pissed off, phases when I was entertained by what he was doing and phases where I was upset with myself.
“It was a great theater experience today.”
By the start of the third set, though, the crowd was no longer into the show. But their boos finally lit a fire under Monfils. Two games after they began, he responded by going on the attack. He broke Djokovic for 3-2, and held with a 138-m.p.h. second-serve ace; even when he was winning, Monfils was doing it in the most puzzling way possible. As he began to entertain the crowd, though, he also began to irritate Djokovic, who tore his shirt in the middle of a game.
Unfortunately, just as this “great theater experience” looked set to reach a dramatic peak, it was cut short by that word again: humidity. Both guys were gassed in the fourth set, and when Djokovic finally steadied the ship with a couple of heavy crosscourt forehands for 5-2, it was over. He advanced to his seventh Open final in 12 tries.
Monfils walks away having reached his first Grand Slam semifinal in eight years. He went out, as always, in his own way, and made the case again for tennis as a game of individual expression, whatever his critics might say.
“It OK, you know,” he said. “It’s not only one way to play tennis ... For me, it’s just myself on the court.”
If any of Monfils’ old fans were worried that he was becoming too conventional in his old age, this anti-epic in Ashe will set their minds at ease.