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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.

 

EPL Roundup: Manchester City’s title odds continue to improve

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Manchester City’s futures line has continued to decrease in value, even though it is only two points clear of its cross-town rival with 30 games yet to play.

Unbeaten through eight rounds of play in the 38-game season, Manchester City is now the -250 favorite to be the English Premier League outright champion, according to sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The price on Manchester United (+350) has risen, while Tottenham Hotspur (+1200) has dropped well back.

Matchweek 9 gets underway with West Ham United (-125) hosting Brighton & Hove Albion (+375, draw +235) in a Friday betting matchup. The teams drew 1-1 in their last matchup and could very well do so again, based on both teams’ struggles with finishing plays. Brighton’s best shot to score, as it always is, is Pascal Gross.

Huddersfield Town (+850) seems unlikely to break a four-game goal drought against Manchester United (-285, draw +395), but it will dig in around its goal and make Man U earn its three points. The under on the 2.5 total is -115, and this might be the play since Manchester United might take the do-just-enough-to-win approach.

Manchester City (-1200) hosts pesky Burnley (+2400, draw +1000). The big betting question revolves around the 4.0 total and City being minus-2.5 on the goal line. Burnley might not be capable of stopping City cold, or scoring many goals, but manager Sean Dyche has coaxed them to earn points against top competition several times already this season.

The tightest moneyline involves Swansea City (+180) at home against Leicester City (+160, draw +220). The Foxes decided the show was over for manager Craig Shakespeare and remain an iffy play until his firing blows over. The total is 3.0 and the oddsmakers have the juice on the over (-135) instead of the under (-110). Swansea striker Tammy Abraham should get his share of scoring opportunities.

Off to its worst start in almost a decade, Everton (+275) is an underdog at home against Arsenal (even, draw +250) in a Sunday betting matchup. Taking the Toffees here would be based on the belief that Everton manager Ronald Koeman will pull out all the stops in order to keep his job. Arsenal, after fielding a no-name bunch in its Europa League match on Thursday, could finally have Alexandre Lacazette running with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.

While Tottenham Hotspur (+115) is home to Liverpool (+230, draw +250) on Sunday, it went winless in three tries against the Reds last season. Liverpool is the farthest thing from a sit-back-and-wait team, which ups the possibility of Harry Kane scoring for the Spurs and the 3.0 total going over. The price on Liverpool is nearly irresistible, but Tottenham might be due.

Manchester City Tops EPL Futures, But Manchester United Has Chance to Move

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While Manchester City is moving deeper into minus-money range, Manchester United can show it’s a challenger by winning a rivalry match this weekend.

Riding a five-win streak in the league, Manchester City is the -150 favorite on the odds to win the EPL championship at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Manchester United (+275) has had the benefit of a soft schedule so far, but manager Jose Mourinho’s men can make a statement during matchweek 8 by winning on the road against rival Liverpool.

Chelsea (+800) and Tottenham Hotspur (+1400) remain the darkhorses.

Although Liverpool (+175) is at home for the aforementioned feature match against Manchester United (+155, draw +235), not having speedster Sadio Mane at winger will limit the Reds’ ability to counter-attack. There is a chance of Manchester United playing shutdown soccer and counting on the likes of Romelu Lukaku to poke in a decisive goal. Knowing the stakes, the under on the 2.5 total is inviting.

There is an even tighter three-way moneyline involving host Burnley (+165) against West Ham United (+175, draw +210). West Ham manager Slaven Bilic is getting close to having his first-choice lineup, but Burnley has been the most cohesive squad and is at home, where it’s been tough since the start of last season.

Swansea City (+110) takes a winless home record into action against sagging Huddersfield Town (+275, draw +210). With both teams scuffling offensively and Swansea F Wilfried Bony (hamstring) being uncertain to play, this smacks of a potential 1-0 game. The total is 2.0.

Manchester City (-650) is home to Stoke City (+1800, draw +750). City has scored four goals in three of their last five matches against Stoke, which means both the over on the 3.5 total and the even-money payout on City covering the minus-2.5 goal-line both look reachable.

Neither Brighton & Hove Albion (+220) nor Everton (+135, draw +205) is inspiring great confidence. Brighton is missing three first-choice players, while Everton has had only two men, Oumar Niasse and Wayne Rooney, score a goal this season. The draw offers almost as much value as a Brighton victory.

And Leicester City (EVEN) hosts West Bromwich Albion (+300, draw +225) in the Monday betting matchup. The Foxes need the three points to get out of the relegation zone, and should be able to set up a fresh-legged Jamie Vardy for a goal.