What to make of Gael Monfils' borderline outrageous tactics?

Monfils sad to hear McEnroe criticism (1:36)

John McEnroe was unfiltered when talking about Gael Monfils' performance during the semifinal match against Novak Djokovic, and Monfils responds to that criticism. (1:36)

NEW YORK -- Gael Monfils knew he probably couldn't match Novak Djokovic's game, so he tried to get into his brain.

The result was a bizarre semifinal Grand Slam match that had most pundits and commentators up in arms and fuming, while Monfils argued that his only crime was daring to depart from convention and doing everything in his power to reverse his dismal 0-12 record against Djokovic.

Even Monfils' borderline outrageous tactics were insufficient to bamboozle Djokovic, who survived some anxious moments to win in 2½ hours, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2.

The match began predictably, and depressingly, enough for Monfils. Djokovic leaped to a 5-love lead. Then Monfils adopted a "rope-a-dope" suite of tactics. He stood flat-footed and seemingly disinterested to receive serve, then looped back short moon balls, daring Djokovic to attack. Sometimes he took reckless swipes at serves or foolishly charged the net at inexplicable times.

Commentators, spectators, pundits all were baffled, unsure if Monfils was tanking or pursuing some silly strategy. ESPN's John McEnroe called it the "Don't Try" strategy. Others used words like "bizarre" and "absurd."

The odd thing? It worked. Djokovic was clearly rattled and his game ran off the rails for a while. From 0-5, Monfils bunted and slashed and rope-a-doped his way back to 3-5, 15-40, with Djokovic serving. Monfils bought himself some much-needed breathing room. The process wasn't pretty, but it was effective.

The iconoclastic Frenchman later said his strategy was valuable but that critics "don't want to see it" because they're too hung up on convention.

"Everyone is like, 'Play tennis like this. Do this,'" he said. "But when the guy is too good, you change. I am not academic; I try to be better."

Many witnesses to the match had trouble understanding -- or perhaps it was sympathizing -- with the way Monfils chose to play. Clubbing 52 unforced errors, as Monfils did in this match, is not a very good way to win friends and influence people. It's also undeniable that Monfils' dramatic shift of tactics turned a potentially ghastly blowout into a strange, sharp-edged and fairly competitive match.

Monfils was similarly slapdash in the second set, by the end of which the crowd was getting restless and demanding better tennis. Spectators periodically booed Monfils. When he fell behind 0-30 in the first game of the third set, someone cried out, "Play tennis!" When he lost the next score to make it 15-40, Monfils was roundly booed.

Given that a large number of spectators were listening to McEnroe and his fellow commentators on earpieces, there's a good chance they were egged on by the dismay of the experts.

"If at the end I had the mic, I would say to the audience, 'Stop saying that I'm unprofessional,'" Monfils said. "The guy is killing me, you know. I'm just embracing the fact the guy is too good for me and trying to switch strategy.'"

Monfils did begin playing a more familiar brand of tennis soon after that early break and a Djokovic hold. Monfils won four games in a row with the kind of electric shot-making that makes him such a popular figure. He won the set, but his own analysis was confirmed. Djokovic was just too good for him if the both played straight up, conventional tennis.

"I could have expected it in a way," Djokovic said of the odd match, without a trace of anger. "I was caught off guard. But that's Gael. He loves defense, impossible shots, long rallies."

Shortly after the match, McEnroe summed up his disappointment in Monfils' performance. He predicted that the players in the locker room would have nothing but contempt for it. He called it "the ultimate backdoor effort."

Monfils offered a response

"I'm very sad to learn that such a legend criticize me," Monfils said, "because at the end, what I can say to John is, 'You know, John, I want to be the best. It's tough, you know. And I try my best.'"

Monfils might have added that when the front door is always locked, there's no choice but to try going around the back.