NEW YORK (AP) – For quite a while, Novak Djokovic’s opponent in the US Open semifinals, Gael Monfils, looked as if he didn’t want to win – or even be there at all.
That premeditated “great strategy’’ of hoping to lull the No. 1 seed and defending champion into complacency and mistakes, as Monfils described it later, worked briefly, yet did not prevent a two-set deficit. So he transformed back into his entertaining, athletic self. A sweat-soaked Djokovic sought help from a trainer for aches in both shoulders, and what was no contest suddenly became one.
Monfils forced a fourth set, and Djokovic ripped off his white shirt angrily a la “The Incredible Hulk.’’
The ultimate outcome was only briefly in the balance, though. Djokovic regained the upper hand, as he so often does, reaching his 21st Grand Slam final and seventh at the US Open with an eventful and, at times, bizarre 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Monfils on Friday.
“Well, it was a strange match,’’ said Djokovic, who will face No. 3 Stan Wawrinka in Sunday’s final, “as it always is, I guess, when you play Gael, who is a very unpredictable player.’’
Never more so than on this muggy afternoon, with the temperature at 90 degrees and the humidity above 50 percent. Monfils, now 0-13 against Djokovic, spent most of his news conference defending his unusual approach and said he knew beforehand he might try it.
On ESPN’s telecast, John McEnroe blasted the 10th-seeded Frenchman for lack of effort. The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd jeered him.
“First question is, like, `You’re not competing?’ … Yes, I’m competing,’’ Monfils said, cursing for emphasis. “I made a sign to my coach (to) say, `OK, I’m going to Plan B.’’’
Djokovic had three set points while serving at 5-1, 40-love, and Monfils transitioned into something that at first blush appeared to be “tanking’’ – losing on purpose, for who knows what reason – but which he explained afterward was the tennis equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s boxing “rope-a-dope,’’ absorbing someone else’s best shots and pretending to not be interested in attacking.
Instead of his usual crouch preparing to return serves, Monfils casually stood upright at the baseline, without a worry in the world, looking like someone waiting to place his takeout espresso order. During points, Monfils would hit slices or make halfhearted, half-swinging strokes, then occasionally wallop a 100 mph passing shot.
“For sure, people are not really ready to see that,’’ Monfils said. “Definitely, I try to get in his head, try to create something new for him to see.’’
Somehow, the tactic was effective, for a short while, anyway.
“I was completely caught off-guard,’’ Djokovic acknowledged.
Djokovic will try for his third US Open championship and 13th major trophy overall against Wawrinka, whose first final at Flushing Meadows came via a 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 victory over No. 6 Kei Nishikori that lasted more than 3 hours and finished with the roof shut. Djokovic has won 19 of 23 previous meetings, but Wawrinka did win their 2015 French Open final for his second Grand Slam title.
Wawrinka was down a set and a break against Nishikori, who eventually faded in the heat and mugginess. Wawrinka got so sweaty his racket flew out of his hand on one point, but he seemed to grow sturdier as the match wore on.
At the start, Wawrinka said, Nishikori “was always dictating. I was feeling uncomfortable on the court. He was coming at the net. … I just tried to, little by little, play a little bit better, a little bit faster, a little bit heavier. I tried to make him run.’’
Wawrinka has spent nearly twice as long on court as Djokovic has so far: a little under 18 hours vs. a little under 9 hours.
That’s because Djokovic enjoyed the easiest path to a major semifinal in the nearly half-century of the Open era: Three of his first five foes pulled out of because of injuries.