In a crazy match, Novak Djokovic struggled with injuries, the odd behavior of his opponent but got through Gael Monfils 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 to reach his 7th US Open final.
The Serb received treatment on both his right and left shoulders during the match, and was also seen in pain. Meanwhile, Monfils went to a semi-tank rope-a-dope strategy after quickly going down 5-0 in the first set. The tactic worked and allowed the Frenchman back in the match, and he came from 2-0 down in the third to take the set.
But Djokovic was too strong in the end winning in four sets after 2 hours, 32 minutes. It was his 13th straight win over Monfils and he reaches his 21st career Grand Slam final.
After the win, Djokovic talked about the match and mostly about Monfils’s unusual tactics which he said pissed him off at time.
Q. Gaël just said he tried to get into your brain because he couldn’t get into your game, basically, and that he thought it was starting to work but in the end you were still too good. How did you see these first two sets and how did you win that?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, it was a strange match, as it always is, I guess, when you play Gaël, who is very unpredictable player. I could expect that in a way. I was 5-Love up in less than 20 minutes, and everything felt great; couple of close games there.
And then just that service game on 5-1, that’s when it started. I was completely caught off guard when he just stood there and chipped the ball back and didn’t do much. If I would get to the net he would go for the passing shot and hit some impossible gets and balls.
But that’s Gaël. That’s the way he plays now. That’s the way he played always. He loves to come up with a variety in his game, and the defense shots. He loves long rallies.
So, yeah, I think I should not have allowed him to come back to the match after two sets to love up and 2-love in the third. That was the momentum shift when I lost my service game. He started believing in himself, and I think the crowd disliked his efforts, I think, towards the end of the second set.
I think he felt like he needs to step it up and start to play better, which he did, and then crowd was behind him. They wanted to see, you know, the long match.
I think we both physically struggled a little bit towards the end of the third and fourth set, beginning of the fourth especially. Long rallies; tense moments, obviously.
But he did try many things. You know, second serve, serve and volley. You know, just a very slow chipped ball in the middle of the court, and then, you know, invites me to the net basically and comes up with some good passing shots.
Sometimes you don’t understand the game, but that’s who he is. I think he actually played best tennis of his life on hard courts this season and the results are showing that.
So it was a good win for me today.
Q. You called him unpredictable and that’s how he always plays. Do you think that’s deliberate and effective strategy or just a personal preference? Is it a compliment to your game that he feels he needs to change it up to throw you off?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Compliment or not, I mean, that’s who he is. As I said, it’s not the first time that he comes out and just tries different shots and different splits and, you know, puts himself in a position to defend and come up with some intriguing points and entertaining points for the crowd.
You know, he loves that entertainment part. He loves to go left and right and jump and slide and all these things. He’s very athletic. I think he’s basically putting everything on the display on the tennis court.
But that’s the way it has been for so many years.
Q. John McEnroe was very critical through a lot of the match about Monfils as being unprofessional, lack of effort. Would you ever characterize a tactic like he used in that sort of way?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: I mean, again, it’s a question for him, really. I thought at times that he was, you know, maybe behaving a little bit –you know, for some terms and judgments unacceptable — but, again, I guess that was part of his tactics. If he said that you have to believe him, I guess.
He was 5-Love down with his game and he mixed it up. It seemed like it was a bit of a lack of effort, but then he started playing great. He started playing aggressive. He took chances. He came to the net.
In the end of the day, I thought it was a good match. We played a four-set match. I think the crowd enjoyed it in the end.
Q. How exactly does it feel to be serving at 5-1 in a slam semifinal and then to see your opponent returning your first serve from inside the baseline, slicing everything?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, as I said, you know, again, it was my fault for really — that game was 40-Love — and allowing him really to, you know, just disturb me, you know, with that kind of movement and just a different approach, I guess.
I don’t know how to call that. But, again, I made some double faults and just some — just really wasn’t myself at that game and the next game. I put myself in a really awkward position, you know, to allow him — from 5-Love up to allow him to come back to the set.
But I managed to hold my nerves in 5-3, close the set out; second set was good. Served I think 88, 89% first serves in. Everything was working. Started off the third well.
Then the momentum shifted. He felt his chance was there. He got it. Crowd got into it. Physically we both felt, you know, the humidity and the tough conditions today. So it was a tough one to be part of, especially in the third and midway through the fourth set.
But it’s semifinals. Again, you can’t expect just somebody to hand you the win. Just very glad to overcome that.
Q. Do you think he got inside your head at all during that set?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, that one or two games I allowed, yeah. But, again, it happens, I guess, because it was just so uncharacteristic and very unusual to see a player in the semifinals of a Grand Slam at the beginning, basically first set, just start to, you know, move around and play like that or behave like that.
But, again, it shouldn’t be my concern. What my concern is, you know, is my side and what I need to do. I allowed myself to drop the concentration and to lose the momentum for a little bit, but luckily I got back.
Q. We’re talking about Gaël’s play. Talking about your own, how do you assess the way that you played the match today? Thoughts going into the final?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: As I said, I thought I played a very solid, very sturdy, 2-love in the third. And then, five games lost, two service games lost. Just all of a sudden wasn’t, you know, as effective from the baseline. He stepped it up, I think. That was the difference, that he started going for his shots rather than just putting the ball back in play.
And, yeah, that’s when the momentum shifted. But, again, in the fourth I just managed to hold my nerves and be patient and close out the match in good fashion.
So, you know, I have an extra day now to recover and get ready for the finals, which is, you know, where definitely I desire to be whenever I come to the Grand Slam. You know, I want to be able to put myself in position to fight for the trophy, and everything that has happened in the tournament so far is behind me now.
My thoughts are only on Sunday’s match.
Q. You’re an imaginative, free-form kind of guy, but he’s something else. You have known him since you were kids. He brings a lot of joy to people. What makes him special? Dances to his own drummer, talk about him as a guy, a free-form spirit.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: As I said, you know, he’s one of the most charismatic guys on the tour. You know, he brings a full display of athleticism. Just different variety in the game. He’s an all-round player.
In the end of the day, he enjoys playing in the big stage. Enjoys playing tennis. And you can see that. That’s why the fans love him. That’s why he gets the crowd involved. You know, sometimes, as his opponent it’s not easy to handle his up and downs, but, you know, he’s very important asset to our sport. He brings that joy, as you said.
Q. Do you ever say to yourself, What do I do now? Get a little frustrated?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I have played him 13 times, I think, in our professional careers, so I know him well. I know what to expect. But again, even having that kind of awareness and coming into a match, it still happens that, you know, these kind of things that he does don’t go away unnoticed, you know.
Sometimes it can disturb you; sometimes it can bring a smile to your face. It really depends on you, how you react to that.
Q. Obviously as the first into the final we don’t know who you’ll face next. First with Stan, when you go against him, what is the biggest challenge for you?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I haven’t played Stan in some time now. He’s a big match player. He loves to play in the big stage against big players, because that’s when he, I think, elevates his level of performance in his game. Just gets much better.
I think he was very close to lose in second or third round in this tournament some match points and he was struggling with his form.
But the last couple of matches he’s getting in that shape that is, you know, winning him big matches. I lost to him in finals of French Open and I lost to him in quarterfinals of Australia when he won, as well.
So both of these Grand Slam trophies that he has he won against me on the way. So I know right now, having two Grand Slam titles and Olympic medal and Davis Cup under his belt, he believes in himself more. He doesn’t get, I think, too stressed by the bigger occasion. He actually likes playing in big matches.
So, yeah, he’s very powerful, powerful player. Big serve. Probably the best, most effective one-handed backhand in the world now. You know, he can play it all. You know, he has that variety in his game. He can be very dangerous for everybody.
Q. And if you do face Kei, how would you assess his game and the challenge it poses for you?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, Kei is in form, and winning bronze in Rio, playing finals in Toronto, and winning here against Andy Murray who was in tremendous form for last couple of months.
Kei is now very established, top 5, top 7 player in the world for last couple of years. He’s always there. He played in US Open finals; he won against me in semis that year. He also doesn’t really get too frightened by the big occasion. He’s actually looking forward to play the big matches. He’s very committed daily.
You can always see him in the gym or the practice courts. Michael Chang is there. He’s got a full squad of experts around him to, you know, to perfect his game.
It’s good to see that. He’s the best Asian tennis player in history of Asia. He’s got a lot of support. Yeah, he’s hungry for success, no doubt. He’s never won a Grand Slam but he’s always there. You know, he’s very close. I’m sure that, you know, he would be very, very motivated to play in the finals if I get to play him.
Q. Given what you said about Gaël, did he piss you off today or were you aggravated at your inability to see what you had to do to solve the riddle?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I had different phases, I must admit. (Smiling.) I had phases when I was pissed off, phases when I was entertained by what he’s doing, and phases where I was upset with myself for allowing him to — you know, whatever he does to disturb my game and my rhythm.
So I went through it all. It was a great theater experience today.
Q. Could you ever see yourself doing that to an opponent?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: No, we’re all different. You know, it’s hard to speak about — I don’t think that — I know Gaël for a long time so I don’t take things in a bad way from him. He’s a good guy, and just probably tactically tried a few things. That’s all.
Q. You said on court immediately after the match that the description was humid, but I’m wondering, how would you characterize or describe this trip to your seventh US Open final.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I obviously — I always wish to get to this match, the final match, whenever, as I said, come to a Grand Slam. I have those kind of ambitions. But specifically, before this Grand Slam there were things that were happening, you know, with my health and physical state that were, you know, making me a little bit skeptical about how the thing is going to go during the tournament.
I just wished for myself to be able to play on the level that I can. I hoped and I believed that as I progressed in the tournament that things would get better, in which they did.
So I was, of course, blessed to have more days off with no match so I could focus on the recovery and work things in my game and take things easily and to get to this phase.
You know, I’m very, very pleased to have achieved this result.
Q. How would you characterize this journey to the final?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I just characterized it, but not in one word. It’s hard for me to find a headline. I think you have to pick up from the transcript. Yeah, this time I don’t really have that word. I’m sorry.
Q. 42 years ago, Muhammad Ali invented the rope-a-dope strategy against Foreman; the famous Rumble in the Jungle. Were you familiar with that? Did you recognize possible tactic? Did you have any concern about possibly punching yourself out in the fourth set? Early in the fourth looked like both of you were leaning on the ropes a couple of times. Secondly, and again, speaking of Muhammad Ali, what are your views and thoughts about the role of athlete as entertainer, as well?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Wow. Okay. Thank you for your questions. Trying to make them as short as possible. Very interesting questions.
Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest athletes that ever lived. He was one of the most appreciated athletes that ever lived. Not just because of his achievements, but because of who he was and what he stood for and, you know, the values that he shared with people. He was a people’s champion. That’s what they called him.
So of course it makes me no different than other people towards, you know, the respect of the legacy that he left behind.
But it’s not really I think comparable, boxing and tennis. I mean, it’s one on one, but I wouldn’t like to be in the ring with Muhammad Ali and going with the punches.
But today there was a lot of punches on the tennis ball back and forth. It was really exhausting because, you know, the opponent today I played with loves to stay in the back of the court and always bring another ball back.
Physically we were taking each other to the limit. And, you’re right, that at times it looked like we were really in a tough battle. And The role of athletes as entertainer, yes. I mean, I think, you know, not just entertainment, but the whole picture, you know.
I think athletes have such a privilege to be always in the spotlight. Today’s world of media, you have a lot of attention. You know, you need to use that in a positive way, try to take that as a responsibility to kind of do something valuable with that rather than just spreading that kind of awareness about yourself being a champion and wanting to achieve.
Sure, people want to see you perform at your highest and fight for trophies, but you also can use this platform as an opportunity to share something different, something valuable, something that young kids around the world can use as a great example.
So I think it all fits in, right? Entertainment, the responsibility, human responsibility, the things that I guess have the same direction and same issue.
Q. You mentioned the physical concerns you had coming into the tournament cast against you. Do you have any concerns going into the final, or do you feel like that’s behind you as far as injuries?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Thankfully it’s behind me, so I don’t have any concerns. I have lots of excitement for the finals.
Q. The ripped shirt, how much did that surprise you and how much did it give you an opportunity to kind of forget about tennis for a while?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: I can’t blame Uniqlo for that shirt. The quality is very good, by the way. I did rip it once, and then the second time just got out of hand, I guess, in heat of the moment.
But, you know, it felt nice, because my body could breathe a little bit more. (Smiling.)
But, yeah, I guess, you know, these things happen. Sometimes you’ll seen a thrown racquet here and there, a ripped shirt. It’s all in the heat of the battle.
Q. Is it in the garbage?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: I guess so. I haven’t seen it ever since.
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