US Open 2016 Men's Semifinals: Djokovic vs. Monfils Preview, Predictions

Joe Kennard@@JoeKennardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2016

US Open 2016 Men's Semifinals: Djokovic vs. Monfils Preview, Predictions

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    Two of the game's best athletes are set to collide with a championship berth at stake.
    Two of the game's best athletes are set to collide with a championship berth at stake.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    The top half of the men's draw at the 2016 U.S. Open has been whittled down to two names: Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils.

    When it comes to athleticism, agility and flexibility, they may be the most superior tennis players in the world. But for all their similarities, they couldn't have taken more different paths to reach this point.

    Two-time and defending champion Djokovic is now into his 10th consecutive semifinal appearance in New York. Shaking off early exits from Wimbledon and the Olympics, the top seed has only completed nine sets through five rounds because of injuries to several of his opponents.

    Trying to overcome his own physical problems, he should have extra energy in the tank as he tries to reach his seventh U.S. Open final.

    On the other side of the net is Monfils, whose best prior result here was the quarterfinals. Known as one of the game's best showmen, he's let his results do the talking, sweeping through to this stage without even dropping a set.

    For years, Monfils always seemed to be a guy who underachieved given all his talent. Now, it looks like he's putting the pieces together. And he's doing it on the sport's biggest stage.

    To keep his ride going, he'll have to find a way to snap some dubious history against Djokovic. 

Monfils at US Open 2016

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    A first U.S. Open semifinal appearance awaits Monfils.
    A first U.S. Open semifinal appearance awaits Monfils.JEWEL SAMAD/Getty Images

    In his 10th appearance at the U.S. Open, Monfils is through to the semifinals for the first time—just his second trip to this stage of a Grand Slam. His only previous one came eight years ago at the French Open.

    What's most impressive is how he's made it here. In 15 sets, Monfils has yet to lose a set, only once being taken so far as a tiebreaker.

    While his draw hasn't been overly daunting, Monfils has kept his foot on the pedal and refused to look past anyone. 

    In the first round, Monfils outclassed big-serving Gilles Muller. After beating 226th-ranked Jan Satral, he took out a pair of veterans, Nicolas Almagro and Marcos Baghdatis, with ease to book his spot in the quarterfinals.

    He saved his best for Rafael Nadal's conquerer, Lucas Pouille, schooling his compatriot in a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 rout. At No. 24, Pouille is the highest seed he's defeated to this point.

    Efficient serving has been his recipe for success. On average, he's won just under 79 percent of his first serves per match. 

    Not only is Monfils backing up his own serve, but he's also been a deadly returner. In total, he's racked up a whopping 25 breaks.

    That two-way success has the 30-year-old Frenchman on the verge of the career breakthrough he's waited so long for.

Djokovic at US Open 2016

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    Djokovic slaps a backhand in a fourth-round match against Kyle Edmund.
    Djokovic slaps a backhand in a fourth-round match against Kyle Edmund.DON EMMERT/Getty Images

    For all the worry about the state of his body, Djokovic has actually been the beneficiary of injuries in New York. 

    To reach the semifinals, he's completed only two matches—a four-set win over Jerzy Janowicz in the opening round and a victory over Kyle Edmund in the fourth round. Second-round opponent Jiri Vesely gave him a walkover because of left forearm inflammation, while third-round and quarterfinal foes Mikhail Youzhny and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga both retired mid-match because of injury concerns.

    Djokovic himself has called the trainer twice during the tournament to work on his arm, so he's definitely fighting through some lingering pain or soreness. But the extra rest he's been gifted only seems to be making him stronger heading into the latter stages of the tournament.

    "In this stage of the season, considering some physical issues I have had in the last month, month and a half, this was the scenario that I needed and I wished for," Djokovic told USA Today's Nick McCarvel. "I got a lot of days off and recovered my body."

    The downside is that he hasn't had to play much tennis at this U.S. Open.

    Will he be sharp enough against Monfils?

Who Has the Historical Edge?

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    Monfils has yet to solve the Djokovic riddle in their prior meetings.
    Monfils has yet to solve the Djokovic riddle in their prior meetings.Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Djokovic owns this series.

    They’ve played 12 times on the ATP circuit, with Djokovic winning all of them. Most of their matches haven’t even been close, six of them ending in straight sets.

    Only once has Monfils bested Djokovic—in 2004 during a Futures tournament in Italy. Since they went pro, the script has flipped completely.

    On hard courts, Djokovic is a pristine 10-0 against the Frenchman, with two of those victories coming at the U.S. Open (2005 and 2010).

    Their last encounter came at the Rogers Cup in Toronto earlier this summer, which Djokovic easily took by a score of 6-3, 6-2. Despite not playing his sharpest tennis, the world No. 1 had no trouble with the mercurial Monfils.

    "You do have a certain mental comfort knowing that you have had plenty of success against your opponent," Djokovic told the Associated Press (h/t USA Today). "Nevertheless, that is not a certainty. That's not a guarantee that you can win the match. Actually, it actually makes him more eager to come out and play his best tennis."

    Can Monfils summon enough belief in himself to make 13 his lucky number?

Biggest X-Factors?

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    Djokovic's mind is willing, but is his body able?
    Djokovic's mind is willing, but is his body able?JEWEL SAMAD/Getty Images

    Djokovic's health has been the elephant in the room all tournament.

    We know what he's capable of when he's firing on all cylinders. The question is whether he's healthy enough to play to his highest level.

    Between his wrist and elbow, something's going on with Djokovic's arm. It's probably just fatigue from the accumulation of all the matches he's played, but only Djokovic knows the severity. The fact that he's called out the trainer during two matches signifies there's some discomfort present.

    If Monfils can turn this into a grueling match, how Djokovic holds up physically will be the main thing to monitor.

    From his end, Monfils will be battling the pressure of his first U.S. Open semifinal. He's usually as cool as a cucumber on the court, but nerves could creep in for Monfils with so much on the line. 

    This one will be both a physical and mental test.

Monfils Will Win If...

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    At age 30, Monfils is playing the best tennis of his career.
    At age 30, Monfils is playing the best tennis of his career.JEWEL SAMAD/Getty Images

    How do you stop the most successful hard-court player ever on his favorite surface?

    Pray. And stay disciplined.

    Monfils has a penchant for seeking out the type of highlight-reel shots that you’d normally only see in a video game. Against Djokovic, the sport’s top defender, flair will only take you so far. Somehow, Monfils will have to find a way to be patient and construct points; hitting Djokovic off the court won’t be an option.

    To his credit, Monfils has taken a more businesslike approach lately. So far, that mentality's paid off in spades in New York, though he hasn't faced anyone close to Djokovic's caliber.

    Serving will be a key. He’s done well at holding throughout the tournament, dropping serve only six times in five matches. The man on the other side of the net, however, is like a hawk when it comes to devouring break points.

    In their matchup at the Rogers Cup, Monfils made only 48 percent of his first serves and won a paltry 28 percent of points on his second.

    Those numbers will have to come way up if he’s to reach the final.

Djokovic Will Win If...

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    Despite an early hiccup, Djokovic has played better with each match.
    Despite an early hiccup, Djokovic has played better with each match.Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

    Djokovic will look to do what's worked so well for him against Monfils (and any opponent): win with variety.

    From the baseline, there's arguably none better than Djokovic. He'll be back there a lot because the rangy Monfils gets so many shots into play, but his transition game is where he can land the knockout punch. At net, he's a far superior player, and mixing things up should be enough to throw the Frenchman off.

    Maintaining a high first-serve percentage will be key with how proficient Monfils has been breaking all tournament. Then again, Djokovic is the king of the return game and should put plenty of pressure on Monfils to back up his own serve.

Prediction

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    Will Djokovic get to perform his customary victory celebration after taking on Monfils?
    Will Djokovic get to perform his customary victory celebration after taking on Monfils?Elsa/Getty Images

    If Djokovic isn’t 100 percent fit and this becomes a long, physical match, the new and improved Monfils could pull the shocker.

    An injury to Djokovic may be Monfils’ only hope to play for a maiden Grand Slam title. This head-to-head just doesn’t favor the Frenchman, and a hungry Djokovic will pounce for a four-set win.

    On the precipice of his seventh U.S. Open final and with red-hot Andy Murray breathing down his neck for the No. 1 ranking, defending champion Djokovic won’t stumble here. He’ll find a way to get past a surging Monfils in an athletic contest.

    All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.

    Joe Kennard is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.

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