The thing I love about sport is not just the drama, but the fact that you can often learn a lot, even from the loser.
Take the just concluded US Open. Gael Monfils caused a major controversy in his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic, when he stepped inside the baseline to face the World No 1’s first serve. So there was Monfils casually chipping back the ball to Novak, seemingly tanking the match. The tennis world led by John McEnroe were quick to condemn Monfils, and when his serve was broken at the start of the third, there were boos from the crowd. Monfils eventually won the third set, but ran out of gas and lost the fourth.
I could relate to what Monfils was doing as I have the honour of being the worst player at my tennis club. When you are being regularly thrashed by another player, you get desperate, and are willing to try anything to upset their rhythm. As McEnroe himself admitted, Monfils' tactic was only “bordering on unprofessional… because it’s working.”
Monfils had lost all 12 of his previous meetings against Djokovic, being physically worn down by a player so supremely fit that he’s often referred to him as the Machine. Monfils was entitled to try anything to break Novak’s domination. To me what Monfils did was a mix of daredevilry and innovation. Chipping the ball back to Djokovic was almost like challenging Djokovic to do his worst. And I’m not the only one who felt so. Ali’s famous rope-a-dope was a term being used to describe the tactic by the media.
However to me, the revelation was how well Monfils covered the net, retrieving almost everything Djokovic threw at him, and nearly getting the set back on par. That was a show of unbelievable talent. I mean if this guy had trained as systematically as Djokovic and gone on a healthy diet… what might have been?
Anyway, Djokovic knew Monfils’ fitness levels couldn’t match his, and he deliberately attacked this weakness. Apart from going side to side, in the third set, Djokovic did a series of around 7–8 drop shots. Incredibly, Monfils got to every one of those shots, and won every point, except the last. But the effort took it out of him. Though he won the third set, he didn’t have anything left, and lost the fourth set, and the match.
So it was ironic that in the Finals, Djokovic came up against a man nicknamed Stanimal, and not for no reason. Wawrinka, who prefers the nickname ‘Stan the Man’ is the one player who can not only keep going longer than Djokovic, but also has the power to blast him off the court.
Stan started slowly, and at 5–1, the first set looked like it was going 6–1 to Novak. But Wawrinka looked positive all the while and soon began to find his range with booming forehands and madly bouncing backhands that were going too fast for even the speedy top seed to get to. Djokovic fought back to take the set in the tiebreak. But Stan, as he himself later put it, knew his ‘game was there,’ and didn’t seem too concerned at losing the first set.
His confidence was not misplaced. A couple of hours later, it was the fourth set with Djokovic down by two sets, and a break in the fourth. After being run all around the court by Wawrinka’s powerful haymakers on both wings, Djokovic’s feet were literally worn out and bleeding. He needed a couple of timeouts to get them attended to. It was against the rules but Djokovic tried his luck, and got away with it.
It was just delaying the inevitable. When Stan starts playing attacking tennis like this, he has no defensive mode, and is virtually unbeatable as he showed in the French Open in 2015. This was not at that level but still too good.
As the pressure built up, Stan just started hitting the ball harder but with pinpoint accuracy and eventually forced errors from Novak. Before long, he was smiling with the trophy in hand. Later, Djokovic admitted that Wawrinka has a good claim for it being the Big 5, not the Big 4. This from a guy who might have been on 15 Grand Slams, if not for Stan.
And as the pictures of Djokovic getting his bleeding feet fixed flashed around the net, somewhere, a weary Monfils would have been smiling.
Poetic justice, indeed!