You probably knew that Novak Djokovic was 16-0 to start 2020, having posted an unbeaten mark at the ATP Cup, having won the Australian Open and having bludgeoned his way into the Dubai semifinals. In his first three matches at the 500-level event, Djokovic didn't lose more than three games in a set; over his last 50 sets, Djokovic has lost just five.
You may have even known that Djokovic was 16-0 in his career against Gael Monfils, who has been ranked as high as No. 6 in the world and reached two Grand Slam semifinals. Those accomplishments pale in comparison to what Djokovic has achieved, but the point is, Monfils is a hardly a scrub, even though the Serb has made him look like one throughout much of their utterly one-sided rivalry.
But what you may have not have known is that, aside from Djokovic, Monfils may be playing the best tennis in the world right now. It's not even March, and Monfils has won two titles, both indoors in Montpellier and Rotterdam. His only losses have come against Top 5 players: Dominic Thiem, in Melbourne, and Djokovic, at the ATP Cup—and, once again, today.
It may have been his toughest loss to Djokovic of them all. With a breakthrough victory in clear sight, Monfils failed to convert three match points in the second set, and suffered a stinging 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-1 defeat.
Prior to today, the last time Monfils and Djokovic played a deciding set was in 2014, at the Canadian Masters. There, Djokovic won a third set in a tiebreak, and then won 14 of his next 16 sets (and six matches) against Monfils.
That six-match run was the only streak that came to an end today. Djokovic began the match bleeding errors while on the receiving end of a barrage of heavy Monfils groundstrokes. Forehand, backhand—and, because this is Monfils we're talking about, some drop shots thrown in—it didn't matter for the Frenchman, who lashed the ball crosscourt and down the line, knowing it was his best strategy against tennis' immovable object. Djokovic tried to stand his ground at the baseline in the first set and for much of the second, but Monfils was simply playing better.
This was in sharp contrast to Paul Annacone's pre-match assessment, Thursday on Tennis Channel: "They're very similar in styles of play, and Djokovic is better in all of them."
But after a breezy first set, the two tangled with perhaps as much combined grit as they ever had. They exchanged breaks, and from 3-3 on played some of the most engaging and dramatic tennis of the young season.
At 4-5, with Monfils serving, Djokovic earned two set points. Monfils saved them both.
At 5-6, with Monfils serving—and looking increasingly weary after a diet of extended rallies—Djokovic earned three set points. Monfils saved the trio, one with a drop-shot winner; another after a diet of massive groundies; the third with a serve +1 combo.
Djokovic would earn three more set points, and would convert the eighth and final one of the set. But not before he saved three Monfils match points, two of which were on the Frenchman's serve. All of them ended with Monfils errors, an unmistakable sign of the mental obstacle Djokovic presents.
It was a difficult sight to see: Monfils, after looking down and out, had a cathartic win within his grasp. He would double-fault away the second set, and had nothing left for the third. At the same time, Djokovic's resilience was impressive. Did he need another win against Monfils on his resume? No, no one would have noticed if their career head-to-head ended at 16-1. But Djokovic, as he's done against a wide variety of opponents, simply refuses to give in. He made Monfils put him away, and he simply could not.
Great quote from Novak Djokovic on his ability to save MPs:— José Morgado (@josemorgado) February 28, 2020
"It's like being on the edge of a cliff. You know there is no way back so you have to jump over and try to find a way to survive, I guess, pray for the best and believe that you can make it"
"If there was ever a time that he would—maybe—get the edge on Djokovic," Chanda Rubin asked on Tennis Channel yesterday, "maybe it could be now?"
That time has not yet arrived.