Racket Response: From rope-a-dope to ridiculous, Djokovic survives

— -- NEW YORK -- He is already the world's No. 1 player with a spectacular skill set currently unmatched in all of tennis.

But as if he needed it, Novak Djokovic has another thing going for him heading into the Sunday men's final:

The gift of time -- time not spent on court.

Djokovic has played only 13 sets, and a total of 118 games. This puts him on a record pace for fewest sets and games in an Open era major that featured a 128-man draw and only best-of-five-set matches.

Defeating No. 10 seed Gael Monfils in a crazy, topsy-turvy match, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, required some extra attention but, despite some late cramping in hot and humid conditions, Djokovic still has an advantage.

Although Djokovic came in with nagging injuries -- a sore left wrist and a right arm -- he had some historic good fortune in his journey to the semifinals.

The quirky Frenchman, employing the unusual tactic of appearing not to try, made it far more interesting than anticipated. He charged back from a 5-0 deficit in the first, then won five straight games after trailing 2-0 in the third.

"At times in decisive, tense moments, we had many exchanges form the baseline," Djokovic said in his on-court interview. "Gael is very entertaining to watch, a very charismatic guy. I do sincerely hope all you guys enjoyed our battle today."

Djokovic did not come close to criticizing Monfils' style of play.

By contrast, Le Monf had not dropped a set coming into the match, but ultimately played 19 sets and 178 games.

Djokovic benefited from three injured opponents: Jiri Vesely (withdrew), Mikhail Youzhny (retired) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (retired).

Some more takeaways from the strange match:

The old rope-a-dope: After Djokovic won those first five games, Monfils began hitting casual, uninspired returns, which set Djokovic off. He let four set points get away. "I've seen strategy changes," ESPN analyst John McEnroe said on the air, "but this tops everything. Even Sigmund Freud above couldn't figure this out. This is bordering on unprofessional. The only reason I'm saying borderline is because it's working. This is one of the craziest matches I've ever seen."

The shirt off his back: Even before Monfils walked off with the third set, Djokovic had torn his stylish white Uniqlo shirt out of frustration. He had completely shredded it and taken it off by the time he got to the changeover chair. Why did he do it? "I keep asking myself the same question," he said, laughing. "Sometimes you don't have answer. Sometimes it just happens in the heat of the moment." Monfils' unpredictable behavior, serial serve-and-volleys, stalling, inconsistent effort and variety of questionable tactics that even included a left-handed forehand, affected Djokovic's concentration and allowed Monfils back into the match.

A ridiculous get: This is what separates Djokovic from the field: In the fourth game of the fourth set, Djokovic sprinted forward to collect a Monfils drop shot, then raced back to the opposite corner. He slid and stretched mightily to hit a cross-court forehand that just eluded Monfls. Two points later, Djkovic converted a break point and took an insurmountable 3-1 lead.

Singular success: Lost in the Monfils histrionics, was another remarkably consistent effort by Djokovic, who reached his 19th Grand Slam singles final of the last 25 played. Put another way, Djokovic has missed only six major finals in the past six-plus years.

Sweet summer, nonetheless: Monfils, 30, finishes his hard-court season with a 19-3 record, also losing to Djokovic in the Toronto semifinals and to Kei Nishikori in the Olympic quarterfinals. He is, however, 1-16 against world No. 1s.

A lucky 13: Djokovic has now beaten Monfils in each of their 13 meetings. The only opponent with a worse record? Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open winner, is 0-14 against Djokovic.