One interesting new plot twist in tennis—I wish I’d been reminded of this before last night—is that every match between Gael Monfils and Novak Djokovic must be conducted in Hell. Like their last encounter in New York, the match must be as Lynchian and listless as possible, and the conditions must be inhumane: in this case, over 100 degrees in Melbourne, which likely felt even hotter on the heat-trapping hard court. Both players must be playing badly and coping very badly with the other player’s bad play.
Whenever the ball is not in play, Monfils must be fully keeled over at all times, wilting over the racket he has propped himself up on. Djokovic, one of the great returners in tennis history, must be dumping dinky kick serves into the net. At least one player must use a changeover to argue to the umpire that it would be inhumane to enforce the rule that says only 25 seconds can elapse between points. Good shots must only appear in the strangest and most desperate of circumstances, and remain under a strict quota. There is not a winner of this 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 “match” so much as there is a survivor. In this case it was Djokovic for his 15th win against Gael Monfils, maintaining his ludicrous perfect record against the Frenchman.
There’s not a whole lot in this match to revisit unless you want a full lowlight reel or an uneasy kind of spiritual hangover. If nothing else this match was simple proof that some of the best-conditioned humans on the planet—Monfils, a former track standout, is possibly the greatest pure athlete to ever try tennis; Djokovic, for all his early career woes, turned himself into one of the most freakishly fit and fatless people on tour—can still be totally broken by the whims of weather. But one funny takeaway is that Gael Monfils playing under extreme duress arguably has better shot selection than Gael Monfils in good health. The normal Monfils is playing cat and mouse with his own career. On set point, with the ball sitting nice and fat up at the net, he decided to play the worst drop shot ever. Novak could have taken a sip from his water and still comfortably jogged over to put away this ball:
And yes, sometimes Monfils is just fully dead, as he was during the second and third sets, just rolling his serves in, constantly retreating to the merciful shade at the back end of the court, walking off the court when the ball is being served to him. But there is a sweet spot, a kind of productive urgency. In the final set, towards the end, he will suddenly come to realize the gravity of the moment, and, barely mobile, bring his considerable groundstrokes to bear on the pathetic exchange. All of a sudden he is going for broke, trying to do the thing he has struggled to do his whole career: end points quickly. This wasn’t tenable strategy for him to win a best-of-five match, but it was heartening to see him try.
But on closer inspection, it’s not heartening, because he only tried it because he was dying, and surely he would not carry over these lessons to any match played outside of an oven. Nothing about this match was heartening, especially not the final game, which lasted over eight excruciating minutes as Djokovic limped over the finish line, barking and self-flagellating, while Monfils poured his final drops of energy and water into a hopeless last-ditch sprint.
Professional athletes shouldn’t compete in 103-degree weather.