September 10, 2016
Novak Djokovic overcame terrible humidity and a mini-comeback from Gael Monfils to reach the final at Flushing Meadows.
There he will face Stan Wawrinka, who somehow managed to tame Kei Nishikori 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 after the Japanese star had made a storming start in their semi-final.
Monfils began so poorly against Djokovic that it seemed he had frozen entirely. Then, even worse, he appeared to take a casual approach to the very fact that he had frozen.
The initial lack of fight was too much for the tough New York crowd, some of whom began to jeer the Frenchman mercilessly.
As the booing grew at the start of the third set, Monfils reacted by encouraging his detractors with a heavy sense of irony.
And yet the reaction to his seeming lack of effort became the catalyst for something special, albeit temporarily.
Monfils decided to have a real go at taking on Djokovic. The Serb was suffering in the oppressive conditions and looked vulnerable for a while, as he lost the third set.
Growing in confidence, Gael produced a hot-dog and a hand-switch, instinctively returning with his weaker left during one rally.
But almost as suddenly as Monfils brought out all his athleticism, tricks and fireworks, they disappeared once more.
As Djokovic raised the level, his showman opponent seemed to turn meek and obliging once more, barely going for the last shot he needed to stay in the match as Novak triumphed 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2.
It had been a strange match indeed – and prompted fierce criticism of Monfils from the likes of John McEnroe, who derided his apparent lack of spirit.
No one could accuse Nishikori of lacking spirit, though. He was irresistible in the first set against Wawrinka. And when he broke at the start of the second, it seemed that Japan would have a US Open finalist once more.
Indeed, it could be argued that Nishikori has played the best tennis of the entire tournament, when you take into account his semi-final start and that stunning victory over Andy Murray.
For all that, Wawrinka found a way to handle the threat and became the stronger player as the contest continued.
The Swiss will have to start much better against Djokovic, or else he will struggle to find a way back into the match.
But you can never rule out Wawrinka against Novak. Those who remember Stan the Man’s French Open triumph last year would struggle to pick a more emphatic and explosive display in the history of our sport.
In addition to that painful memory, Djokovic knows deep down that he hasn’t been at his best this summer.
Even during his semi-final, he took time out for shoulder massages and seemed irritated by the fact that the big screen was on during rallies.
Wawrinka will have to be at his very best to shock Djokovic, who on balance should carry the day come Sunday’s showdown.
But it should be a great final. And it is about time in this strange tournament that Djokovic was fully tested at last. No one has really been able to stretch him for long periods yet.
Stan might be the man to do just that.