In one of the more bizarre matches in recent Grand Slam semifinal history, Gael Monfils lost to Novak Djokovic in four set at the US Open today.
The result wasn’t much of a surprise because Djokovic is the World No. 1, the defending champion and had beaten the Frenchman in all 12 of their prior meetings. But the match will be remembered for Monfils’s unusual rope-a-dope tank tactics he employed down 5-0 in the first set.
Monfils stood well in the baseline to return serve, and hardly put any pace on the ball, and the strategy paid off. He won three straight games until Djokovic was able to close out the first.
The crowd began to boo as Monfils lost the second, but he was able to turn things around from 0-2 down the third to at least win a set.
After the match, Monfils explained his actions saying that that he had to try something different, otherwise Djokovic was going to kill him.
Q. Strange match out there in that it seemed like you were both kind of fighting your bodies at times. Talk a little bit about the elements out there and how you were feeling.
GAEL MONFILS: Strange match why?
Q. It looked like physically you guys were both laboring at times. Was the heat getting to you?
GAEL MONFILS: I think it was hot and humid, but somehow I think also at one moment of the game it was very physical; was good rallies. Whenever it’s like that it’s never easy to recover quick, like 25 seconds. For sure, the heat help, I mean, not really help us, but I think also that was the way the match goes.
Q. Starting early in this match it seemed at times you were having problems competing. What was going on for you physically and psychologically?
GAEL MONFILS: What do you mean, competing?
Q. You didn’t seem to be able to give it your full effort.
GAEL MONFILS: No, at the beginning I think, you know, Novak was playing good. I didn’t serve great, you know. It was very quick 5-0. I get to change a little bit, you know. I get to change. That’s a little bit tough, because for sure people are not really ready to see that. You know, because, you know, why I will stay and lose 6-0 and not change anything?
So, yeah, definitely I try to get in his head. You know, try to create something new for him, you know, to see. And that was it. When the guy is too good, you know, playing clean and you’re playing very bad, I mean, not that good, you know, you need to change.
At the end, that’s why I think it was necessary, and I almost get back to the first set.
Q. Were there any times that you were not able to try your best?
GAEL MONFILS: I think I try my best every time. He was just too good.
Q. Do you think that strategy of trying to upset Novak didn’t work, probably? Obviously in the first set, and yet later on you competed very well. The third set, for instance, seemed far more successful.
GAEL MONFILS: I think it work, you know. You just don’t want to see it. If no one is doing that, you know, everybody is like, Play tennis like this. You have to do like this.
It’s okay, you know. We can change a little bit. We can, you know — it’s not only one way to play tennis, you know. When the guy is hitting clean and you’re not serving good — and actually, I wasn’t returning good — yeah, you just show him. You stand in the middle of the court. Start to double fault a little bit.
Then you give him very slow ball, but could I run, you know. And then he come to the net. I pass him. Was great strategy. What do you mean? I think I started 5-0 and then I was like 5-3, 15-40, and was bad. I think I guess. When I try a little bit to play “original” tennis is where he kill me.
Q. Have you had opponents do that to you, as well, change up the tactics?
GAEL MONFILS: No, because everyone not doing it because of all the question they gonna receive and all the — is not natural, and I know it is not natural. Because first question is like you’re not competing. Fuck, yes, I’m competing, you know. Even I’m like at my best actually. The guy is too good. I just have to change, you know.
As I always say, the change is guts, you know. It’s like people told me, Ah… No, I think I’m gutsy to try that, you know, against the world No. 1 of the world, you know. 5-0, okay, I show you that I play none academic way.
And then I won’t win a match like that, but I can win maybe 15 minutes, maybe two more games, one more games. I can push him a little bit to defend also myself, more confidence, and put him out his balance.
You know, it was a great strategy, I think.
Q. Good US Open. Congratulations.
GAEL MONFILS: Thank you.
Q. You once said that my culture is to be very fun and to enjoy life. In the big picture of your career, how important is it to have fun and to be creative for you?
GAEL MONFILS: I think it’s natural, you know. It’s not how important I think is like this. I think everything I do in my life I try to have fun, and I try to be creative on the tennis court, outside the tennis court.
So for me it’s just myself on the court.
Q. How are you creative outside the court?
GAEL MONFILS: I create music; I create painting; I create whatever I want to create. I create, what you say, clothes. I create, I don’t know, dance move. I create anything.
Q. It sounds like you were prepared for this question about the competition and your strategy and everything else. Did anybody say anything to you when you came off the court to make you aware that so many people, including John McEnroe, including some of the commentators, were kind of angry and really disappointed about this whole issue?
GAEL MONFILS: Yeah, for sure. When I decide to play like that for half a set I knew it is gonna be different. But at the end I’m not playing for those people. I play for myself. I try to win, you know.
At the end, you know, everybody have an opinion of something that not in my body, not in my mind. They not see what I’m saying at that moment, you know.
They will tell me, Oh, he’s so talented, so physical. Look, he’s playing like this in the third set and he won it, blah, blah, blah, blah. But at the time and at 5-0, it wasn’t that. I tell you. I just change something, you know.
Is not academic, but I try to win. I’m sorry, every time, you know, to hear that I get destroyed. For what? At the end, for what? To tell me I’m so talented I waste my time.
Sorry, I’m not wasting my time. I think I know how to try to play the best, and to play the best sometime is to improve.
And when the guy is too good, you know, you change. Not academic, but I try to be better.
If those people talking, talking, come help me. You know, I’m more than happy to have them help.
But I feel that, you know, they want to help me, he’s still Novak. He’s still Novak to play.
Q. Is there anything personal between you and John McEnroe? He’s been criticizing you all tournament, and today he was pretty tough on you in the first two sets. Called you unprofessional and said he never saw anyone lacking effort. Is there something in the past between you two? Are you surprised he’s so hard on you?
GAEL MONFILS: Well, I just know — I don’t know. You know, I like John. I think he’s a great person. I mean, I have nothing personal to him, so I’m very sad to heard that. I’m very sad to learn that such a legend criticize me, because at the end what I can say to John is, you know, John, I want to be the best. It’s tough, you know. And I try my best.
I’m sorry if you think I’m unprofessional, but I guess I’m working, I’m learning, you know. I think I’m failing, for sure, a lot, but I try to stand up. You know, it’s tough, because when he call me unprofessional he calls my coach unprofessional, calls my physio unprofessional, calls my physic — all my team, actually, unprofessional. Is a bit tough, you know.
And he knows what it is. I’m more than happy to talk with him, you know. For sure, you know, it’s easy to punish me because I not win anything, you know. Such an easy thing. I do different stuff. I’m happy. I’m always with a smile.
I make it easy. But I think John knows that if I want to be in the semifinal of the slam, anything he can say, if I not play top seed or whatever, you know, I won couple matches and I have been trained hard, you know.
So I just very sorry bring that, and tell to John that I’m more than happy to talk with him. You know, is someone that I always care about what he is saying, but I’m just sad that he criticize me that easy.
Q. Was it a spontaneous decision to change in the first set, or do you think that comment about Djokovic knowing how your match is going to go against him that would be something you could do?
GAEL MONFILS: Yeah, I knew definitely before the match is something I could do.
Actually, you know, I know it’s not good, but I made a sign to my coach and say, Okay, I’m going to Plan B, actually. (Laughter.)
I made it pretty clear, you know. And I knew it, because I have done that in the past against him, against Novak. You know, I played him, and actually, all the time I get little grip on him, you know, a little bit to get back in the game. Is always to play like that.
So, yeah, I was aware that if he was doing that in my way I have to play a little bit like that.
Q. How did you feel about being booed in the first game of the third set when you double-faulted?
GAEL MONFILS: It’s part of the sport, you know. I think for sure people was expecting a tougher battle, you know. And then, you know, it was strange, because as you say, maybe they will listen to commentary and say I’m unprofessional, I’m poor, whatever. So it gets very quick to people.
And then it’s tough, you know, tweeting during the match saying, and maybe John McEnroe say, Such a disgrace.
At the end, you know, if I have a mic, I would say to the audience that stop saying that, you know, I’m unprofessional. The guy is killing me, you know.
I’m just embracing the fact the guy is too good for me, and I try to switch strategy. Then somehow, you know, I had this small opportunity and I get it, and then I think the crowd was much better.
Q. You talked about changing things up. There were a few times late in the first set where on your return you came really far in. Was there anything that you saw in his serve that made you think, that would work, or was it just, you were trying anything?
GAEL MONFILS: When?
Q. On your returns, a few times late in the first you were coming — were really shallow halfway to the service line almost. Was that preplanned? Anything in his serve that made you think that would work, or was it just a random…
GAEL MONFILS: Because I know Novak somehow is not too confident with his serve now. I think closer you get, bigger the target, and it will force a little bit. And I think that’s why I have done it.
Q. Have there been other matches in the past where someone has tried a very different strategy and thrown off their opponent? Do you know about any of these matches? Does that inspire you? Arthur Ashe against Jimmy Connors.
GAEL MONFILS: And John McEnroe telling me it wasn’t professional? I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. I wish I could, you know.
As I say, I have done it because I want to win, you know. I just want to find a solution. Sorry if it wasn’t, I mean, academic, but at the end, you know, when you change, you change with what you got. What I got is my speed.
I got a little bit my instinct and flair and to show down the game, to make him play, to make him come in. That was my flair, and I hit the shot. You know, at the end it was just too good.
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