By John Delong
Gael Monfils is clearly one of the biggest crowd favorites at the Winston-Salem Open.
But the 26-year-old Frenchman and No. 15 seed still considers himself an underdog as he heads into Friday’s semifinals.
After rallying to beat seventh-seeded Fernando Verdasco 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-4 in the quarterfinals on Thursday afternoon, Monfils noted that he was ranked lower than the other semifinalists – including his opponent in Friday afternoon’s semifinals, Alexandr Dolgopolov.
"I still think I’m the outsider," Monfils said. "I think Alex is ranked better than me and the other guys still in the draw, they are higher than me. So I am the outsider, and I like it."
Monfils endured sweltering heat to rally past Verdasco, after letting three set points slip away in the first set and then being down a break in the third set.
It was his second victory over a highly-ranked Spaniard in two nights, after he beat No. 4 seed Tommy Robredo 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-2 on Wednesday night.
Monfils came to the WSO after a four-week layoff because of a biceps injury and a sprained ankle, and he said he was very pleased with the way he has come back.
"I’m happy," he said. "It’s always good to be in semifinals of a tournament, especially with two big wins. This one was good today, so, you know, I’m happy and hopefully I can keep going. I am trying to be back in shape and I have put in a lot of hard work this week and it is looking good, so I am happy."
This win didn’t come easily, for sure.
Monfils led 6-4 in the first-set tie-break and was serving for the set at 6-5, but double-faulted. He had two other set points later, but Verdasco fought back and got the mini-break he needed at 8-8. Monfils then got a break early in the second set to go up 2-1, and he served out the set despite wilting in the heat and humidity.
Verdasco then broke early in the third set to go up 3-1, but Monfils immediately broke back, and eventually got his second break for a 5-4 lead. He fought off two break points to serve out the match.
"It was difficult," Monfils said of the heat. "I think I had a little drop in the second set. It was very hard and there was not much wind and sometimes I had drop in energy. You just have to focus on other stuff, and especially against Fernando it is tough because he makes you run a lot. Normally I try to get an advantage over my opponent (in the heat) but I think today it was tougher for me."
Verdasco was plagued by unforced errors throughout the match. He attributed it to trying to play overly aggressive because of a blister that developed on his foot after his third-round win over Robin Haase on Wednesday.
"I played with the mentality today of all or nothing, because I couldn’t do anything else," Verdasco said. "It was short points and fast points because I was not moving the way I was (Wednesday). That’s not the way I normally play. I knew it was going to be a match like that with a lot of winners and a lot of errors.
"Also, he’s a player that covers the court a lot. He returns more balls than the average player, so he pushes you a little more to make mistakes than the other players. He puts every ball back and so you need to win the points twice or three times more than a regular player. So I think it was the way I played, and the fact it was against Monfils, that made me make more errors than usual. But I knew it was going to be like that because of how my foot was."
Monfils, who reached the final at Umag in July in his previous tournament, now faces another entertaining player in the 10th-seeded Dolgopolov. Monfils prevailed earlier this year at the Australian Open, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3.
"It’s going to be a tough match," Monfils said. "I played him at the Australian and he’s always tough to play against because he’s so tricky, so many shots he can do. So I expect a big match and a fun match. Definitely, I think it will be fun."