Novak Djokovic takes the wind out of Gael Monfils’ sails
The wind was high, swirling and distorting for the first of the men’s quarter-finals in the 2010 US Open, but it had competition in the form of the human tornedo: the Gael that is Monfils.
The opening men’s quarter-final promised to be a show-stopper, throwing together two of the most demonstrative and extrovert players in tennis. Against Monfils was the Serbian star, Novak Djokovic.
World No3 Djokovic had won all four of their past meetings, but all had been tight affairs, including a five-setter in the 2005 US Open, and a close three-setter at their last meeting in the 2009 Paris Masters.
And Monfils, despite a close first-round match, had played some fine tennis, particularly against Janko Tipsarevic and Richard Gasquet in rounds three and four.
Monfils’ coach of two years, Roger Rasheed, has tried to get his charge to play a more contained game, and to resist throwing himself around the hard courts quite as carelessly. Monfils’ heavily strapped knees bear witness to the punishment his athletic fireworks place on his body. Indeed, he has suffered a plague of injuries: wrist twists, thigh strains, shoulder pulls, and foot fractures.
In New York, there were signs that the advice was starting to sink in. Monfils played the big points well, attacked the net rather more, and gave in to the emotions rather less.
Like the Frenchman, Djokovic had a tough first-round five-setter in the searing heat of week one. But the win seemed to inject some extra belief into his game. With each subsequent match, he showed more confidence and more consistency. By his fourth round clash against Mardy Fish, his fluid ground-strokes, accurate serving, and attacking stance began to meld into very good form.
Arthur Ashe erupted with the very first point as, straight away, the tennis went into high-octane mode with both men showing their all-court skills and all-round speed and variety.
It was Monfils who drew first blood, breaking Djokovic on his second service game to lead 2-1. The Frenchman ran everything down -even lost causes -and prevented the Serb from getting any early rhythm.
Djokovic then won four break points in the eighth game, and played some explosive, accurate tennis to draw equal, 4-4. His serve, already at a very high level, took him through a love service game to leave Monfils serving to save the set.
The Frenchman, who started to look depleted from his exertions, fought to contain the bombardment -and drew level again.
For a man renowned for his excellent backhand, the Djokovic forehand winners kept coming: eight by this stage. The set advanced to a tie-break, and the 7-2 score-line was an appropriate reflection of Djokovic’s dominance, as was his 78 per cent first serve stat.
Before the second set got underway, Djokovic called on the trainer for some eyedrops: no doubt the wind was a huge irritant to his contact lenses. There was, however, no sign that he was having sight problems, and he opened with an immediate break of Monfils.
The Frenchman started to lose some impetus and fell back to his default defensive position a couple of metres behind the baseline.
As Djokovic’s confidence burgeoned, the Frenchman seemed to become more conservative and the error count grew. The Serb broke, Monfils broke back, but Djokovic upped his offensive game and maintained some impressive accuracy considering the impact of the wind.
In what seemed a long and laboured set, with 18 unforced errors on both sides, Djokovic eventually ran out a 6-1 winner, with the serve again proving to be a solid bedrock at 76 per cent.
Djokovic moved up another gear in the third set. His movement was fast and nimble, his forehand continued to be deep and piercing, and he pulled off some volleys of exceptional quality.
Monfils, meanwhile, became more conservative, more defensive. He failed to deploy the attacking tactics that had beaten Gasquet, and that allowed Djokovic to control the play.
Not surprisingly, in the swirling wind, there were more unforced errors. In fact, Djokovic totted up 14 of them to 11 winners. But Monfils managed just one winner in the entire third set, and petered out to a 6-2 loss.
So a straight sets victory of some style takes Djokovic to his fourth semi-final in New York in four years. In the last three, he has come up against Roger Federer and lost. This year, he could meet Federer again.
First, the Swiss has to get past the dangerous challenge of Robin Soderling. It was the Swede who broke Federer’s unbroken run of 23 Grand Slam semi-finals at this year’s French Open. No pressure, then.
And his reward, should he win, is a Serbian in very fine form and on a mission to make it fourth time lucky.