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After odd win, Djokovic to face Wawrinka in US Open final

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NEW YORK — For quite a while, Novak Djokovic’s opponent in the U.S. Open semifinals, Gael Monfils, looked as if he didn’t want to win – or even be there at all.

That premeditated “great strategy” of hoping to lull the No. 1 seed and defending champion into complacency and mistakes, as Monfils described it later, worked briefly, yet did not prevent a two-set deficit. So he transformed back into his entertaining, athletic self. A sweat-soaked Djokovic sought help from a trainer for aches in both shoulders, and what was no contest suddenly became one.

Monfils forced a fourth set, and Djokovic ripped off his white shirt angrily a la “The Incredible Hulk.”

The ultimate outcome was only briefly in the balance, though. Djokovic regained the upper hand, as he so often does, reaching his 21st Grand Slam final and seventh at the U.S. Open with an eventful and, at times, bizarre 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Monfils on Friday.

“Well, it was a strange match,” said Djokovic, who will face No. 3 Stan Wawrinka in Sunday’s final, “as it always is, I guess, when you play Gael, who is a very unpredictable player.”

Never more so than on this muggy afternoon, with the temperature at 90 degrees and the humidity above 50 percent. Monfils, now 0-13 against Djokovic, spent most of his news conference defending his unusual approach and said he knew beforehand he might try it.

On ESPN’s telecast, John McEnroe blasted the 10th-seeded Frenchman for lack of effort. The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd jeered him.

“First question is, like, `You’re not competing?’ … Yes, I’m competing,” Monfils said, cursing for emphasis. “I made a sign to my coach (to) say, `OK, I’m going to Plan B.”‘

Djokovic had three set points while serving at 5-1, 40-love, and Monfils transitioned into something that at first blush appeared to be “tanking” – losing on purpose, for who knows what reason – but which he explained afterward was the tennis equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s boxing “rope-a-dope,” absorbing someone else’s best shots and pretending to not be interested in attacking.

Instead of his usual crouch preparing to return serves, Monfils casually stood upright at the baseline, without a worry in the world, looking like someone waiting to place his takeout espresso order. During points, Monfils would hit slices or make halfhearted, half-swinging strokes, then occasionally wallop a 100 mph passing shot.

“For sure, people are not really ready to see that,” Monfils said. “Definitely, I try to get in his head, try to create something new for him to see.”

Somehow, the tactic was effective, for a short while, anyway.

“I was completely caught off-guard,” Djokovic acknowledged.

Miscue after miscue arrived from Djokovic, and Monfils won three games in a row, before eventually dropping a set for the first time all tournament.

“I thought, at times, that he was maybe behaving a little bit – for some terms and judgments – unacceptable,” Djokovic said. “But I guess that was part of his tactics. If he said that you have to believe him, I guess.”

Djokovic will try for his third U.S. Open championship and 13th major trophy overall against Wawrinka, whose first final at Flushing Meadows came via a 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 victory over No. 6 Kei Nishikori that lasted more than 3 hours and finished with the roof shut. Djokovic has won 19 of 23 previous meetings, but Wawrinka did win their 2015 French Open final for his second Grand Slam title.

Wawrinka was down a set and a break against Nishikori, who eventually faded in the heat and mugginess. Wawrinka got so sweaty his racket flew out of his hand on one point, but he seemed to grow sturdier as the match wore on.

At the start, Wawrinka said, Nishikori “was always dictating. I was feeling uncomfortable on the court. He was coming at the net. … I just tried to, little by little, play a little bit better, a little bit faster, a little bit heavier. I tried to make him run.”

Wawrinka has spent nearly twice as long on court as Djokovic has so far: a little under 18 hours vs. a little under 9 hours.

That’s because Djokovic enjoyed the easiest path to a major semifinal in the nearly half-century of the Open era: Three of his first five foes pulled out of because of injuries. Then came this 2 1/2-hour miniseries, topping them all for oddness.

In the second set, Monfils lost five consecutive games, and limped afterward. Soon, Djokovic led 2-0 in the third, breaking on a double-fault that drew boos and whistles. All over but the shouting, right? Nope. In a blink, Monfils awoke.

Hours before the match, Djokovic clutched at his back during a practice session in Ashe. Behind 5-2 in the third, Djokovic got his left shoulder massaged. Later, it was time for help with the right shoulder. Asked what health worries he might have, Djokovic replied, “Thankfully, it’s behind me. So I don’t have any concerns.”

In the late going, Monfils was leaning on his racket between points. More examples of playing possum? Perhaps. But Djokovic showed his own signs of distress in the tough conditions.

After all of that, Djokovic plays Sunday for his third Grand Slam championship of 2016. He won the Australian Open in January, and the French Open in June – when the theatrics were at a relative minimum by Friday’s standards.

 

Manchester City’s odds halved in EPL futures after first loss

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Manchester City looking human — to the point it came away empty-handed in a league match for the first time in 2017-18 — has restored some value to English Premier League futures.

Manchester City is now a -3300 favorite on the EPL futures boards, according to sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The Citizens still have a 12-point cushion with 15 matches left in the season, so it would have to collapse in order to be overtaken by second-place Manchester United (+3300) or Liverpool (+4500) and Chelsea (+10000), who are level in third place at 15 points back.

Manchester United being the apparent winner of the Alexis Sanchez sweepstakes as the forward prepares to leave Arsenal does alter Top 4 odds. United (-600) is likely a shoo-in and Liverpool (-500) showed in its win against City that it can adapt to life after Philippe Coutinho.

However, losing out on Sanchez, or losing him period, respectively puts Chelsea (-450) and Arsenal (+700) on shaky ground. Tottenham Hotspur (even) could be poised for a run.

Matchweek 24 commences early Saturday with Brighton and Hove Albion (+525), which has just one win in five games, hosting Chelsea (-170, +275 odds on the draw), who will need Michy Batshuayi to cover the scoring with Alvaro Morata and Pedro Rodriguez serving suspensions. Chelsea might have to grind for the win, which is why the under on the 2.5 total is deep into minus money at -150.

West Ham United (-110), with Marko Anautovic having five goals in as many games, hosts Bournemouth (+290, +250 draw), which also been in good form. West Ham should have no reason for a letdown playing at home against a just slightly lower-placed team. The 2.5 total seems low for a game where it’s unlikely anyone plays for the 0-0 or 1-1 draw.

Arsenal (-210) has likely seen the last of Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette is mired in a goal drought, so Crystal Palace (+575, +350 draw) could create some interesting results if it strikes on the counter-attack. The over on the 3.0 total is priced at -110.

Leicester City (-125) is on an upward tick with a four-match unbeaten streak in all competitions, while Watford (+330, +275 draw) has regressed. Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez has four goals in as many games against Watford. Neither team is a great candidate for a clean sheet, so the over (-135) on the 2.5 total is a good pick.

Stoke City (even) will try to get the new-manager bump under the command of Paul Lambert is it hosts Huddersfield Town (+295, +225 draw). Dollar-store sports psychology might suggest that between Stoke’s fragile confidence and 14th-placed Huddersfield knowing the teams between them and Stoke all have tough matches this weekend, a draw and the under (-150) on the 2.5 total are pragmatic plays.

And Southampton (+450) is winless in 10 matches, while Tottenham Hotspur (-165, +290 draw) and Harry Kane are on a strong run where they have won six of eight games and scored 23 goals coming into their Sunday betting matchup. Tottenham pays +110 for the minus-1.0 goal line and the over on the 2.5 total is even money. Until a team stymies Kane (eight goals in his last five), he’s a strong play in goal scorer props.

Premier League Odds: Man City puts unbeaten record on the line

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The megabucks transfer of Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool to Barcelona has sway over a couple of English Premier League lines – one immediate, one long-range.

As league play resumes, undefeated Manchester City is a +120 favorite away at Coutinho-less Liverpool, who comes back at +205; the draw offers +260 on the three-way moneyline and the total is 3.0, according to sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Whether it is relevant that Man City’s last win at Anfield in 2003 is debatable, since City has become such a well-heeled club in the years since. But this could be a tricky matchup for the Citizens since key midfielder Kevin de Bruyne will likely to be marked by the physical Emre Can.

The loss of Coutinho notwithstanding, Liverpool still has firepower with the EPL’s No. 2 scorer, Mohamed Salah, along with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. The 5-0 scoreline from the teams’ first league game at City was an anomaly, as Liverpool was a 10-man side after a red card in the first half.

The 3.0 total pays -120 for the over, and there’s probably just too much potency in each team’s attack for anyone to record a shutout. If one is going chalk with a City pick, then Raheem Sterling with his knack for late-game tallies is worth a side bet in goal scorer props.

Huddersfield Town (+160) has not lost at home this season against a lower-placed team, but West Ham United (+190, +200 draw) is on an uptick with a win or draw in six of its last seven games. Five of the last six games in this matchup have had fewer than 2.5 goals. The 2.0 total pays -110 either way.

Watford (+135) is in a funk with one win in six league fixtures, but Southampton (+195, +230 draw) is winless in nine. These sides’ last eight games have had a combined 34 goals (4.25 per match), so the 2.5 total with over paying -105 is very good value.

Chelsea (-375), off a short turnaround from a Carabao Cup match, hosts Leicester City (+1000, +475 draw). Chelsea will have captain Gary Cahill on its back line, but its finishing has been problematic lately. Leicester, which has both conceded and scored in 14 of 22 games, is even money on the goals line at +1.5.

Bournemouth (+355) let Arsenal (-145, +310 draw) off the hook during their 2017 fixture by blowing a three-goal lead. Bournemouth, with striker Callum Wilson up front, offers great value for the upset. In any event, there should be scoring; the over on the 3.0 total pays 2.5.

Meantime, Man City’s 15-point cushion on second-placed Man United has destroyed any value in EPL champions futures, as it’s dropped to -10000. The best futures prop might be for top goal scorer. Tottenham’s Harry Kane (-185) is the homegrown favorite, but he has only one more goal than Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (+400), who at 4-to-1 offers enticing value. Liverpool, which is 6-2-1 without Coutinho this season, should still have sufficient playmaking support to get Salah his scoring opportunities.

City’s Sergio Aguero (+500) and the aforementioned Sterling (+2000) are four and five goals behind Kane respectively, but they could cancel each other out and also get spotted in league games if City continues advancing in the Champions League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup competitions.