Novak Djokovic sees off Gael Monfils to make US Open final

Frenchman wins third set after showing little interest in early stages against world number one

In one of the most idiosyncratic tennis matches anyone present could remember, Gael Monfils lost for the 13th time in a row to Novak Djokovic, capitulating in a blizzard of brilliance and insouciance over four sets to gift-wrap the defending champion a place in the final.

Djokovic, in his 10th straight New York semi, should have won in half the time against the world No 12, who was appearing here for the first time at this level. After two hours and 32 minutes that seemed twice that long, the winner was nursing two sore shoulders, which might yet hobble him on Sunday, and a brain that surely was hurting as much. The loser? He wore a sheepish grin.

The history books will record that Djokovic cut the Frenchman down 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 but that is only the cover of the book. Already, Djokovic was the first player in the Open era to reach a Slam semi-final through the retirements or walkover of three opponents – Jiri Vesely, Mikhail Youzhny and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Now he was the co-star in a piece of sporting theatre worth a run on Broadway.

Monfils hit hard, he hit soft, down the middle and almost into the cheap seats. He shrugged, he limped, he laughed and he occasionally looked as if might give up and walk away. He stood motionless two feet inside the baseline to receive, then burst into life, some times with the intended result, often to disastrous effect. He double-faulted at 137mph – on second serve. He rescued lost causes and created more of them. He served 11 aces and 11 double faults. At the end, he was bent over his racket between nearly every point.

“This was one of the craziest matches I’ve ever seen,” said a disapproving John McEnroe, who has been in plenty himself. After only one game, Djokovic complained about the lights being on, 200 feet above the court, despite bright sunshine above. Eva Asderaki-Moore, who’d seen off Serena Williams at her most bellicose in the past, remained impassive.

It did not stop Djokovic playing lights-out tennis. Within 20 minutes he was 5-0 up, carving methodically into his opponent’s self-belief. Monfils saved wipeout with three aces. Carnage postponed. The ball was coming off the Serb’s racket as if calibrated by scientists, with pistol-like precision. He was doing this by the book, whatever was going on up the other end. However, his Route A game hit a roadblock in the seventh game as Monfils shed his nerves and began to trust his altogether different instincts. Monfils smiled as Djokovic double-faulted to hand him the break.

Three games had already ended in double faults. (Djokovic hit seven in all; his serve needs surgery). Monfils looked as if he could barely bother to be on court, started soft-balling, a la Arthur Ashe v Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final. Djokovic saved two break points and held after 35 truly weird minutes.

The crowd did not know what to think. They were watching an outsider who’d not dropped a set all tournament teetering on some sort of self-made abyss against a champion whose own history for inexplicable disintegration was buried deep in his past.

But here, steady and precise, he slowly unpicked the Monfils game plan of anarchy, and won 18 of 21 points to go a set and 4-1 up. As Djokovic served out the set to love, Monfils hopped and skipped to his chair, as if on blistered feet.

The New York punters gave in to a round of booing at the start of the third set, and Monfils responded by urging them on. Why not? He then double-faulted to drop serve. The president of the French tennis federation, Jean Gachassin, sat courtside, shaking his head and blowing out his cheeks.

Monfils took a wondrous point from a high-grade rally to break for 2-2 with a hunted-down cross-court backhand in the third, and the gathering warmed to him once again. He had their emotions on a string. He also began to play Djokovic like a puppet, producing winner after winner to break and hold for 5-2. Djokovic got heavy massage on his left shoulder.

It was the Serb’s turn to fight meltdown, wincing and sweating heavily in the 94-degree heat as he struggled to serve above 100 miles an hour. He forced Monfils to save three break points to take the set. Djokovic ripped his shirt open at the neck when it caught on the heart-shaped gold locket hanging around his neck. From 40-love to no love at all. Gachassin rose to applaud the countryman he had derided an hour earlier. A moth (or was it a butterfly?) landed on the Frenchman’s back. It was the least of his burdens.

Djokovic, up 3-2 in the fourth, had his left shoulder worked on. When they met here over five sets 11 years ago, Monfils complained Djokovic’s four stoppages for cramp constituted gamesmanship. They probably are one-all on that score.

The world No 1 got the score he wanted, though, breaking Monfils in the eighth game of the fourth set with a routine forehand that flew past the Frenchman without reply.

Thunderstorms lurked. If they had arrived accompanied by locusts it would have been no surprise.

Stan Wawrinka outslugged Japanese sixth seed Kei Nishikori 4-6 7-5 6-4 6-2 to set up a final meeting against Djokovic.

The third-seeded Swiss took a while to get untracked as 2014 US Open runner-up Nishikori played a near flawless opening set of the semi-final with just two errors.

The Japanese broke Wawrinka to start the second set, but the Swiss started rolling after breaking back in the fourth game and Nishikori, who went five tough sets to upset second seed Andy Murray in a four-hour quarter-final, began to wither.

Wawrinka, the 2014 Australian Open winner and 2015 French Open champion, broke Nishikori in the last game of the second, third and fourth sets to reach his first US Open final.

(Guardian service)

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