Each of the two competitors had his own perspective on the US Open semifinal they played on Friday.
“It was a strange match,” were the first words out of Novak Djokovic’s mouth in his post-match press conference.
“Strange match, why?” was Gael Monfils’ first response, addressing a reporter who felt the same way Djokovic did.
It was strange, though, wasn’t it?
First and foremost, there was the Frenchman’s bewildering (and oddly effective) display of gamesmanship in the first two sets – which looked as much like tanking as it did any kind of conscious rope-a-dope. There was his laconic, upright, flat-footed receiving stance and his nutty court position, and there were his hanging, paceless one-handed chip returns and his 135-mph second serves.
There was the bizarre fact that it worked, for a time.
“I was completely caught off guard when he just stood there and chipped the ball back and didn’t do much,” Djokovic said.
And when it stopped working there was the equally odd sight of Monfils suddenly reverting to what he called “original tennis,” cracking huge leaping groundstrokes, running down everything in sight, and improbably stealing the third set after going down two sets and a break.
There was Djokovic, rending his shirt asunder before set point in the third, and then playing that point with half his chest exposed. There was Monfils – who’d been the toast of the tennis world mere hours earlier – getting booed by the Arthur Ashe crowd for his perceived lack of effort, then motioning for the crowd to make more noise before immediately double-faulting to get broken.
There was the vicious humidity that made both men stagger around like drunkards between points, or keel over with only their rackets to prop them up. There was Monfils combating the energy-sapping heat with a can of Coke during a fourth-set changeover. There were multiple trainer visits for Djokovic – to work on both his shoulders – and one for Monfils, just to chat. At times, there was even some fine tennis played, with Djokovic coming up with one of the shots of the tournament to earn a break point in the fourth.
So, yeah, there was a healthy amount of strange packed into two-and-a-half hours of tennis, whether Monfils wants to admit it or not. The only remotely predictable aspect of the match was who ultimately won.
How it was won was really of no consequence to Djokovic, for whom strange has become the norm at this tournament. Even if he beats Stan Wawrinka in the final Sunday to win his 13th major, no one will sing songs of his 2016 US Open run, which to this point has featured as many withdrawals and retirements from his opponents as it has completed matches.
But, as the saying goes, you can only beat the opponent in front of you, and aside from a wobbly first-round outing against Jerzy Janowicz and the half-set in which he fell into Monfils’ trap, Djokovic has done so with aplomb. Lost in all the tomfoolery Friday was the fact that it was his excellent play – the depth on his groundstrokes, the accuracy of his first serve, the clarity of his movement – that drove Monfils to desperation tactics.
“The guy is too good,” Monfils said. “I just have to change, you know.”
A round earlier, Djokovic absolutely rolled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for two sets before Tsonga retired with a knee injury. As for the round before that … they’re probably still scraping pieces of Kyle Edmund’s ego off Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
If it’s looked easy, it’s in part because compared to the six previous times Djokovic made the US Open final, it has been. But it’s also in part because he’s made it look that way, because that’s what he does. It’s almost enough to make you forget that he considered sitting out the tournament because of a wrist injury.
No, years from now, we aren’t likely to be sitting in the rocking chair with a corncob pipe, waxing poetic to our grandkids about Djokovic’s performance in Flushing Meadows this year. But if he wins the title, it’ll count on the ledger just the same, and history will soon forget the unusual circumstances in which he came by it. He’ll have done what he was supposed to do; beaten every opponent in front of him, even if there were fewer of them than expected.
Some will say the journey’s what’s most important, but for Djokovic, the destination will suffice. What a short, strange trip it’s been.