NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Facing an opponent who occasionally played as if he had somewhere better to be, Novak Djokovic reached his 21st Grand Slam final and seventh at the U.S. Open with a bizarre 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Gael Monfils on Friday.
Djokovic, the No. 1 seed and defending champion, dipped in form in the third set, and had a trainer massage his left shoulder and, later, his right shoulder. Djokovic entered this match enjoying the easiest path to a major semifinal in the nearly half-century of the Open era: Three of his first five foes either stopped playing or pulled out of the tournament entirely because of injuries.
Then came this 2½-hour contest, which topped them all for oddness, drawing some jeers and whistles from the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium: The 10th-seeded Monfils, normally a showman and in only the second Grand Slam semifinal of his career, seemed to just give up at times.
On Sunday, Djokovic will try for his third U.S. Open championship and 13th major trophy overall, facing No. 3 Stan Wawrinka or No. 6 Kei Nishikori.
Safe to say, nothing the rest of the way is likely to be as eventful as Djokovic vs. Monfils. There were two one-way sets in which Monfils hardly looked like a player who wanted to win. Then came the third, when Monfils finally made a stand, and Djokovic ripped off his white shirt in anger a la “The Incredible Hulk.” In the fourth, both men tried to buy time between points on a steamy day with the temperature reaching 90 degrees and humidity topping 50 percent.
The outset certainly was memorable, if indecipherable. Djokovic raced to a 5-0 lead thanks in part to two games with a pair of double-faults apiece from Monfils. After all of 19 minutes, Djokovic earned a set point. But Monfils held there to 5-1, then transitioned into what either appeared to be an attempt to “tank” — in other words, lose on purpose, for who knows what reason — or the tennis equivalent of a “rope-a-dope,” in which he wanted to appear not to be interested in defending against Djokovic but then would whip a big shot of his own.
Instead of his usual crouch preparing to return serves, alert and with elbows on knees, the Frenchman stood casually at the baseline, without a worry in the world, looking like someone waiting in line to place his takeout espresso order. During points, Monfils would hit slices or make truly half-hearted, half-swinging strokes, then occasionally smack a 100 mph forehand. Monfils even repeatedly tried serve-and-volleying, a style he almost never employs, and erred often.
“This,” John McEnroe told ESPN’s viewers, “is weird.”
Somehow, though, it actually worked briefly. Maybe Monfils got in Djokovic’s head, because miscue after miscue started coming from that side of the court. Monfils won three games in a row, before eventually dropping a set for the first time all tournament.
In the second set, there was more of the same from Monfils. He lost five games in a row and 20 of 24 points in one stretch, and came up limping after the set’s final point.
Djokovic went up 2-0 in the third, breaking on a double-fault by Monfils that drew boos. All over but the shouting, right? Nope. In a blink, Monfils suddenly came to life, playing his athletic best. When he broke back to get to 2-all, he raised his right fist and the fans roared. Monfils won five consecutive games, including one spectacular point in which he took a long run to get to a short ball, then reversed direction for a leaping volley winner.
On Saturday morning, hours before the match, Djokovic clutched at his back during a practice session in Ashe. Behind 5-2 in the third against Monfils, Djokovic got his left shoulder massaged. Later, it was time for help with the right shoulder during a medical timeout. By the end, he was hitting second serves in the low 80s mph or below. These would constitute new trouble spots for the Serb, who arrived in New York with concerns about his left wrist, then got treatment on his right elbow during his first- and fourth-round matches, the only ones he needed to complete until Friday.
The man Djokovic was supposed to play in the second round, Jiri Vesely, withdrew a couple of hours beforehand, citing a left forearm problem. In the third round, Mikhail Youzhny quit after six games across 31 minutes because of a strained left hamstring. In the quarterfinals, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga stopped after two sets plus one point with a hurt left knee.
On Saturday, Monfils was leaning over and using his racket like a cane for support between points in the third and fourth sets. Djokovic’s shirt was soaked with sweat and he certainly showed signs of distress. But Djokovic emerged to win.
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