Will the 13th time be the charm for Gael Monfils? That is what the Frenchman will hope as he faces top seeded Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals. Monfils has lost all 12 previous meetings with Djokovic, including an 0-3 record at Grand Slams.
(1) Novak Djokovic vs (10) Gael Monfils
Djokovic’s odd 2016 U.S. Open run continued in the quarterfinals with another abbreviated match. The top seed was running rough shod over 9th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga when the Frenchman pulled the plug after two sets due to a knee injury. It could explain the poor play from Tsonga in the match where he racked up 37 unforced errors in the two sets with just eleven winners. Tsonga was horrid on his second serve, losing 19 of the 26 points played. Djokovic was extremely effective with his first serve, winning 24 of 28 points played. The top seeded Serb was still broken once on two chances. He had 18 winners to offset 13 unforced errors.
Djokovic has played just two complete matches through five rounds of this year’s Open with an injury withdrawal prematch by Jiri Vesely, injury retirement from Mikhail Youzhny in the first set and now Tsonga’s retirement after two sets. All said, his last six sets have looked more like the dominant Djokovic we have been accustomed to seeing. He thoroughly destroyed Kyle Edmund in the fourth round and whether Tsonga was limited some with the knee, Djokovic was clinical again on Tuesday in crushing the 9th seed for two sets.
Monfils played a brilliant tactical match on Tuesday against a clearly fatigued Lucas Pouille. His fellow Frenchman was coming off the thrilling five set win over Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and looked off his best for most of the match. Monfils did a great job in forcing Pouille to pay when the 24th seed came to the net too frequently. The 10th seed sent several perfect lobs to the back of the court to force Pouille into long runs that ended in points for Monfils. La Monf sat back and watched Pouille pound 46 unforced errors around the court in the 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 win. Monfils’ first serve was near perfection, winning 80 of 87 points. The few times that Monfils got himself into trouble, he bailed himself out with fierce serving as he never faced a break point.
It was a precision day off the ground for Monfils with 34 winners and 15 unforced errors in all. That was a good sign after a slightly sloppy performance against Marcos Baghdatis in the fourth round where he had 27 winners and 28 unforced errors. That is the only match all tournament where Monfils has had more errors than winners, another indication of his more controlled style of play for the most part.
To say that Djokovic has dominated the head-to-head meetings is like saying I kinda like bacon; an understatement. The Serb is a perfect 12-0 against La Monf. They have met just once this season at the Rogers Cup where Djokovic rolled 6-3, 6-2. It should be noted that Monfils was on the tail end of two long weeks after winning the title in Washington, D.C. the previous week and making it to the semifinals where he met Djokovic. Monfils’ second serve was a key striking point for Djokovic in their 2016 meeting with the Serb taking 18 of 25 points. He would break Monfils four times on five chances. Despite the stellar scoreline, Monfils did still have seven break chances off the Djokovic serve in that clash. He would net just one break.
Mental Hurdles For Monfils Could Limit Success
On top of the lopsided head-to-head, there is a vast gap in experience at this stage of Grand Slams. For Monfils, this is just his second semifinal. The last came at the French Open in 2008. For Djokovic, he’s playing in his third slam semifinal this year and 31st of his career. More impressive, he has only been stopped ten times at this stage with a 21-10 mark in slam semifinals. This is his 10th U.S. Open semifinal with Djokovic sporting a 6-3 mark at this stage in New York. He has lost just once in the semis at the U.S. Open since 2010, having advanced to the final five of the last six years.
So there is plenty mentally for Monfils to hurdle in addition to what he will see on the court. To Monfils’ benefit though, he is playing some of the most controlled and winning tennis of his career at this moment. It has been easy to see the changes. Mentally, he seems much more focused on the court and the trick shots seem to come more out of necessity now, rather than showmanship. Consistency has been a key as well. Monfils has a big first serve that not many seem to talk about, but he can hit it big and it is very effective in winning him easy points. To contend against Djokovic, he will need to land a consistent number of first serves and use this as a major weapon to ignite his ground game.
The problem of course is that he is facing one of the greatest defenders of all-time in this sport in Djokovic. Djokovic’s ability to get on the end of serves and ground strokes that no on else can is what puts him into a class by himself. We saw this on display against Edmund and some against Tsonga. He will get a ball back that has no business being found on anyone’s racquet. That in turn throws off his opponent who is forced to make another shot or three, when they thought the point was over. Monfils has some of these same traits with his gifted athletic ability, but it’s Djokovic who does the better job of making these ridiculous “gets” and still finding himself in position to defend the next shot. Monfils doesn’t do that nearly as consistently.
You can be assured that there will be plenty of extended rallies from the baseline in this match. Monfils was playing so far behind the baseline against Pouille at times that he might have been asked to show his ticket for front row seats at court side. It’s simply where he likes to play and feels he can use his athleticism best in running down shots. Against players like Djokovic, that can be dangerous living. Djokovic himself doesn’t mind the baseline exchanges of course, but he’s got plenty in his bag of tricks to move Monfils off the baseline into a more uncomfortable position. Monfils can be effective at the net, but that exchange should again favor Djokovic who does a bit more with his volley game.
Where Oh Where Can Monfils Find An Edge
So where can Monfils find an elusive edge against Djokovic? I think it starts on the Djokovic serve. Djokovic is great at saving break points, ranking 8th this season in percentage of breaks saved (69%). If you peruse the list of players above him in this category, it is full of big servers. John Isner, Ivo Karlovic, Milos Raonic and Nick Kyrgios rank first through fourth. While Djokovic has added more MPHs to his serve over the years, he’s not going to win an ace contest too many times. He wins with superior placement and variety, which is what allows him to fight off so many break points effectively. Still, Monfils will know there will be opportunities. Even in the Edmund match where Djokovic was rolling, he faced six break points and the Brit secured a pair of breaks of serve.
In his other complete match, Djokovic faced a dozen break points against Jerzy Janowicz in round one. He saved ten. The chances will likely be there for Monfils. It is the Frenchman’s job to convert and then back those up with a consolidation of serve. That will be a key point in any hope that the 10th seed has in this match. Djokovic is one of the best, if not the best, in the business at scoring the break back after dropping serve. It is demoralizing for an opponent to go from the high of getting the break to seeing it fly away in a matter of minutes. Monfils must avoid that pitfall or he’s toast.
What else can Monfils do that will give him a chance to win? Keep his unforced error count low. If you’re making more UEs than winners against Djokovic, your chances of winning are next to none. That means finding the right balance between patience and aggression in the ground exchanges. Monfils has been better at this during his hot run this summer, but he’s not been able to find that balance enough against Djokovic in his career.
Some might say it’s better to go with the all or nothing approach against Djokovic and hope to catch lightning-in-a-bottle with a slew of winners. Paint the lines so to speak. It can happen (see Stan Wawrinka), but very few can do it against an in-form Djokovic. Monfils has the shots to try it, but that goes very much against what has propelled him to this spot. He would seem better served sticking to finding the right balance and attack with the correct shot at the correct time.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO
The end game here is that this is a brutally difficult match-up for Monfils, version crazy or version controlled. To contend and ultimately pull off the upset, the 10th seed will need early success. Djokovic is not a guy you want to trail in a “must have” situation where it’s two sets to love Djokovic or two sets to one Djokovic. Monfils needs this match to shape up with himself in the lead or playing even along the way. Put the pressure on Djokovic. We know there are still some slight questions about that right now.
If La Monf can get himself in that position early to put some doubt into Djokovic’s mind, then this could shape up to be a thriller. Unfortunately, history paints the opposite picture in this series. Four of the last six U.S. Open semifinals have also ended in straight sets, so let’s hope at least that trend gets bucked a bit in this one. The other semifinal this year looks to be the more logical to be competitive however from a score line perspective, so perhaps the trend goes on.
Djokovic wins in straight sets