Maddening and Magical Monfils Can't Rope-a-Dope – Djokovic to Finals

Photo by Getty Images

Tennis is proper, predictable and respectable.

Hit the ball over the net, try hard, honor the game, respect your foe. This is serious sport – “just win, baby.”

But hold on – tennis has long been enlivened by the rowdies of the game: the rebels and dreamers, the contrarians and the free spirits who have danced about the meadows of the sport. The late Bobby Riggs was a rogue who bet on anything and everything. The zany Ilie Nastase loved to tweak sensibility itself. Whitney Reed beamed beautifully from his own separate dimension. Goran Ivanisevic openly spoke about his multiple personalities, which would berate him during matches. Marat Safin advised his sister Dinara that if she wanted to thrive on the WTA circuit, she should do just the opposite of what he did.

More recently, we’ve seen Bernie Tomic, who seems to attract police officers with a zeal, and Nick Kyrgios, who dances to his own curious drummer.

And today the world saw La Monf – the tall, ebony, quixotic, hunky, kind of dreamy and laid back Frenchman Gael Monfils, who is mighty good.

The 30-year old once shared his philosophy, saying that, “In tennis, sometimes it’s too stiff – some guys want to keep [their] emotions [inside]. Me, I’m not like this…My culture is to be very fun and enjoy the life.”

So it’s hardly surprising that after one Monfils match, Courtney Nguyen wrote: “Infuriating, awe-inspiring, underachieving. These are the words that come to mind whenever I watch Monsieur Monfils. He flies around the court with complete disregard for life and limb, he tries to hit, literally, the dumbest of shots in the book, and he hobbles around and calls the trainer one minute, only to chase down the most ridiculous of balls the next. It’s enough to make the most diehard of tennis fans swear him off and wonder why we should care when he clearly doesn’t. But we don’t swear him off and we keep tuning in because we know that in any given match, in any given point, we might see something we have never seen before.”

If Monfils is not the most charismatic, athletic, confounding, photogenic and underachieving player in the game, and one of the ATP’s most appealing chick magnets, he sure is close to it. Once at the French Open he told his box that the only stroke he would hit in the upcoming game would be his first serve. He promptly hit three aces and a service winner.

Of course his zany ways are not for everyone. When Gael was young, Andy Roddick barked at him during one contentious French Open match, saying that the Frenchman was not good enough to indulge in his antics.

But now he is.

He’s ranked No. 11 and this summer was playing with a distinctly un-Gael like focus and discipline. He won Washington, beat Milos Raonic and sprinted to the US Open semis to face Novak Djokovic, who had whipped him in each of their 12 matches. And today seemed no different, as the Serb raced to a commanding 5-0 lead in the first set.

Then – some 42 years after Muhammad Ali first introduced his rope-a-dope tactic – the frustrated Frenchman started to impose his own version of the win-by-not-trying strategy. It was no accident. He’d done it before, and according to his coach Mikael Tillstrom, it was plan B. He just kind of overdid it today.

No kidding. Monfils stepped in well inside the baseline and looked like a statue as he stood erect to receive serve. This match, said Chris Fowler, is getting “curiouser and curiouser.” Monfils passively swiped at shots, hit safe backhand slices again and again and, when he wasn’t bending over in exhaustion, he almost seemed bemused and disinterested.

“I’m absolutely flabbergasted and disgusted by it all,” said broadcaster LZ Granderson. “Sigmund Freud above couldn’t figure this one out,” contended John McEnroe. “This is a whole new strategy – do the exact opposite of what you should do…He’s getting in my head, and I’m just commentating.”

But Monfils’ ploy worked brilliantly. Later he told IT of his love of creativity. “I create music, I create painting, I create whatever I want to create. I create, what you say, clothes, I … dance [and] move. I create anything.”

Today Monfils created havoc. Eventually boos cascaded, but the Frenchman said, “I’m not playing for these people…Definitely I try to get in [Novak’s] head…[I] try to create something new for him…[there’s] not only one way to play tennis… When I try a little bit to play original tennis is where he killed me.”

The stats sheet showed that Monfils lost 15 of 16 points in one stretch in the second set and 12 of 14 points into the third. No wonder reporters wondered whether he was even competing. But Monfils bristled, saying “F–k yes, I’m competing.”

Indeed, he eventually baffled Djokovic, who was flustered by his foe’s less-is-more, asymmetric attack. “I had phases,” the Serb confided, “when I was pissed off, phases when I was entertained… and phases where I was upset with myself for allowing him to…disturb my game and my rhythm.”

Incredibly, Monfils blasted his way back into the match with rocket forehands, 139 mph second serves, leaping backhand volleys and the long-limbed athleticism that has won him legions of fans. In the third set, he won five games in a row and saw a frustrated Djokovic rip his Uniqlo shirt apart. Monfils took the set 6-3.

Could he possibly craft an upset of the world No. 1 player? Nope. Djokovic, who is both a battler and a savvy match manager, blasted a fierce cross-court forehand to break early in the fourth set and then, despite a sore left shoulder and being in a state of near-exhaustion on a devastatingly muggy afternoon, nailed down a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 win in one of the craziest Grand Slam semis ever.

But then again, the abnormal is normal with Monsieur Monfils. In the end he just couldn’t rope-a-dope and, as McEnroe noted, “The person who deserved to win won.”