By John Delong, Winston-Salem Open
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - American Steve Johnson is through to the Winston-Salem Open semifinals, and he didn’t even need to build up a sweat.
Johnson received a walkover in Thursday afternoon’s quarterfinals when Yen-Hsun Lu was forced to withdraw because of a back injury.
It’ll be the 25-year-old Californian’s third trip to a semifinal, and his second of the summer. He reached the semis in Washington last month before losing to two-time WSO champion John Isner in a third-set tie-break. He let three match points slip away or he would have reached his first career final.
He’ll face qualifier Pierre-Hugues Herbert, a 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2 winner over Pablo Carreno Busta in the afternoon’s other quarterfinal.
Johnson had sympathy for Lu, who injured his back late in a three-set win over Hyeon Chung on Wednesday evening.
“It’s never the way you want to win,” Johnson said. “(Lu is) a great competitor. We’ve played three or four times and he’s gotten the best of me the last couple times, so I was looking forward to going out there and playing him and seeing what kind of adjustments I could have made and measure your game up a little bit. But unfortunately for him I think his back is not feeling 100 percent, and with the US Open right around the corner he didn’t want to do anything to mess it up today. It’s unfortunate, but I’ll just take today and get ready for tomorrow.”
Johnson, the 13th seed who came into the tournament ranked No. 49, received a first-round bye and then beat Sam Groth 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-1 in the second round. Then he knocked off third-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (4) in the third round on Wednesday.
Between the momentum he has built up this week and the confidence he gained from his trip to the semis in Washington, Johnson believes his time may have come to reach his first ATP World Tour final.
“I feel great,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of good matches and I’m excited to play in a semi tomorrow and hopefully come out a winner this time. I’m right there. I was one point away from a final in Washington, so I want to go out there and compete and do what I do best. It’s not going to be my last semifinal, I know that, so I’m just going to go out there and take it point by point and try to do what I do best and just try and win that last point.”
Lu, a 2014 WSO semifinalist, had feared the worst from the time he walked off the court after beating Chung on Wednesday. He tried to warm up on Thursday afternoon, but it was clear that he could not serve normally.
“We do everything we can do with it, the physios,” Lu said. “I tried to test it but I couldn’t really do anything natural, so I think it not really make sense to go on the court and play. I couldn’t extend my body to go backwards, so it really affected my serve. Without a serve, there is not a chance to win. This is not like a junior tournament or something you go there and you can still beat someone without 100 percent.”
Lu said he was very disappointed to have to withdraw.
“I mean, it’s a quarterfinal match,” he said. “I win one more match I go to semifinal. I had a long discussion with the coach. Of course they are all looking for the next week, but I feel upset because you’re fighting for three matches and you are in a good position to go farther and then happens this unlucky things. But hurting yourself and then hurting yourself again is not a good thing. That’s why we decided to pull out of the tournament.”
Lu promised to be back next year.
“I’ve been back for four years,” he said. “Fortunately I was a winner of a lot of matches here. First year second round, second year quarters, third year semi. I mean, this is a tournament I like. I like it very much. I feel very comfortable here. People are very friendly and it’s nice. For me, I have nothing one word to complain about the tournament. Even the last few weeks, some players ask how’s the tournament and I tell them you should come. You will feel good and you will be surprised.”
Herbert was playing his seventh match in six days as a qualifier. He came into the tournament ranked No. 140.
This will be the 24-year-old Frenchman’s first trip to an ATP World Tour semifinal.
“It feels great,” Herbert said. “I’m quite tired because I came through a lot of matches. It was my seventh match, I’m going to play my eighth match now. Seven matches in six days, so it’s quite hard. But I’m feeling great and I’m really happy to be in the semifinals.”
Herbert’s best event previously this summer was at Wimbledon, where he won three qualifying matches and then advanced to the second round.
“I was feeling really good for the last two, three months,” he said. “I felt I was close to do something. I played in Wimbledon, lost a close match to (Bernard) Tomic, and I was feeling good. I almost didn’t come here to play the qualies, but sometimes the stories are just like this. I was close, and I’m really happy to come through with a little bit of luck here in Winston-Salem.”
Carreno Busta was serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set, but he appeared to tighten up and Herbert took advantage. He broke, eventually squeaked out the tie-break, and then dominated the third set. He broke Carreno Busta three times in the final set.
“It’s always difficult to finish a match,” Herbert said. “There’s always a little bit more pressure on your serve. Actually he was really serving well the whole match. But this particular game, I don’t know, I hit some good returns on second serves. I got aggressive and put the pressure on him, and I did it. I broke him by being aggressive, and after that the match turned around.”
Herbert is looking to be the second Frenchman to go from qualifying to the WSO final. Julien Benneteau advanced through qualies in the inaugural tournament in 2011 to reach the finals, before losing a three-setter to Isner.
Herbert defeated Kimmer Coppejans, Kevin King and Sekou Bangoura in qualifying. In the Main Draw, he has beaten Sergiy Stakhovsky, Marcos Baghdatis, Aljaz Bedene and Carreno Busta.