By John Delong, Winston-Salem Open
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A Frenchman goes from qualifying all the way to the Winston-Salem Open finals.
It has happened for the second time in the tournament’s five-year history after qualifier Pierre-Hugues Herbert stunned No. 13-seeded Steve Johnson 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2 in the first semifinal match on Friday afternoon.
The 24-year-old Frenchman rallied from down a set and a break to continue an amazing run that started with two qualifying wins last Saturday and another on Sunday just to make it into the Main Draw. He has now won eight matches in the past seven days.
“I cannot believe it,” Herbert said. “I’m really tired. But I’m taking every day step by step and point by point and I’m trying not to think and that’s maybe why I’m capable of being there.”
He is following the footsteps of Julien Benneteau, who went all the way from qualifying to the finals of the inaugural 2011 tournament. Benneteau wound up losing a tough three-setter to John Isner in the finals.
For Herbert, who came into the tournament ranked No. 140, it will be his first ATP World Tour final. In fact, he was playing in his first semifinal on Friday. He has been known more as a doubles player, with a current No. 21 ranking in doubles. If he wins the title Saturday, he could climb as high as No. 79 in next week’s ATP World Tour rankings.
Making his first final, he said, “means a lot.”
“I think I saw I’m going to be top 100 after this tournament,” Herbert said. “I don’t realize really that I’m in the finals of an ATP 250. The best I did before was second round. So, I mean, it’s just incredible. It’s a great feeling. I’m really happy. I’ll see tomorrow how I feel, but now is not the time to think. I need to still concentrate on my game and tomorrow’s match.
Herbert will face the winner of Friday night’s other semifinal between second-seeded Kevin Anderson and Malek Jaziri.
Herbert seemed headed for a quick exit when Johnson dominated the opening set.
Johnson broke in the first game of the second set and had two break points in the third game for a commanding 3-0 lead. But Herbert fought back to hold, and in the very next game he got the break back, and they were headed to a tie-break from there.
The momentum turned in the tiebreak when Johnson hit an overhead into the net, giving Herbert his first mini-break for a 4-2 lead. Herbert followed by winning the next two points and went on to win the set from there.
Johnson, who was seeking his first career ATP final, was clearly rattled at that point and Herbert broke again to open the third set. It was all Herbert from there.
“It’s not always quite easy to start and get into a rhythm and everything, and Steve was playing unbelievable in the beginning,” Herbert said. “I didn’t return one of his serves for one set. He was playing great, aggressive, putting the pressure on me. Suddenly I played one unbelievable game and the pressure changed, and it was maybe on his side. Then I won the second-set tie-breaker and continued my rhythm in the third.
“I had confidence in the third. It was not his fault. He didn’t do bad things. He missed one forehand in the game and the rest I was aggressive and won points by myself. So I was confident and I was telling myself I can win it.”
Johnson, ranked No. 49, was short and sweet in his post-match press conference.
“Third set, I just didn’t play very well,” he said. “Just not very good tennis by me.”
Herbert defeated Kimmer Coppejans, Kevin King and Sekou Bangoura in qualifying. In the Main Draw, he has beaten Sergiy Stakhovsky, Marcos Baghdatis, Aljaz Bedene, Pablo Carreno Busta, and now Johnson.
Ironically, he almost didn’t come to qualifying. He and Nicolas Mahut were in the doubles in Cincinnati last week, and a win over Rohan Bopanna and Florin Mergea would have put them into third-round action last Friday. That would have made getting to Winston-Salem in time for Saturday qualifying virtually impossible. But Bopanna and Mergea pulled out a 1-6, 7-6 (5), 13-11 victory.
“We had three match points and we didn’t do it,” Herbert said. “If I would have won this match I would have been playing Friday, so I think it would have been tough to come here and play the qualies. So it’s funny. It’s always like this. In so many tournaments the guy saves three match points in the first round and then wins the tournament. In Tokyo last year we were a lucky loser and we win the tournament in doubles. So it’s quite funny in the end.”
Herbert said he would go into Saturday’s title match with a free-wheeling attitude.
“I have no pressure,” he said. “I think the pressure’s going to be on the other side. I’ll do my best and if I can come … I didn’t lose yet in eight matches, so why should I lose tomorrow?”