By John Delong
By his own admission, Jurgen Melzer was not a happy camper when he arrived at the Winston-Salem Open last weekend.
That’s what a mid-summer shoulder injury and early exits in his three previous tournaments can do to a player’s psyche.
But by the time the 32-year-old Austrian lefty flew to New York on the WSO’s private jet Saturday, he was definitely on cloud nine.
He captured the fifth ATP World Tour singles title of his career on Saturday afternoon when Gael Monfils retired early in the second set of what will go down as a 6-3, 2-1 ret. victory in the finals.
Melzer was a gracious winner and had kind words afterward for Monfils, who had a recurrence of a left hip injury that he initially suffered in a semifinal win over Alexandr Dolgopolov on Friday.
"Nobody wants to win a finals like that," Melzer said. "You want to be out there competing. But at the end of the day, you take the title. I felt like today I played well. I was looking forward to that match, that contest, because it’s a great matchup, it’s a defensive player against an offensive player, so you get to see great tennis if both have confidence like we do at the moment. So it’s a pity that it had to end like that."
Fact is, though, Melzer was dominant in the first set before Monfils started showing any signs of pain, and he was already up a break in the second set and headed for a straight-set win.
It was the continuation of the momentum he picked up during the tournament, after he had exited in the first round at Montreal and Cincinnati in the previous two weeks. Before that, he had a four-week layoff while nursing shoulder problems that surfaced when he advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon.
Melzer, the No. 9 seed in the tournament and currently ranked No. 32, opened the tournament with a 7-5, 6-7 (4), 4-2 ret. win over Thiemo De Bakker, knocked off No. 5 seed Benoit Paire 6-4, 6-3 in the third round, beat No. 13 seed Dmitry Tursunov 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals, and then beat No. 6 seed Sam Querrey in the semifinals.
"It’s nice to see everything come together," Melzer said. "A week ago, I was not a happy camper. I haven’t played well and it was because I didn’t have enough tennis in me. I wasn’t practicing because of the shoulder injury, and so when I came back I couldn’t find my rhythm. When you do it for such a long time, you still need to put in the hours, and then playing against good players you’re going to lose. So it’s nice to see the little things come together again and you get your confidence back and play well again.
"The first match wasn’t pretty. I was just happy to get through that. Then I played a technically good match against Benoit Paire. Still wasn’t playing well but I had a game plan and I executed it. But after that, I got confidence and from that day on I was feeling it and I could go for more, and that’s always a good thing for me. When it’s crunch time and I can go for winners, that’s when I’m dangerous the most."
Melzer was in command from the start, mixing strong forehands with some serve and volley and aggressively taking the points to Monfils. He broke Monfils right off the bat to race to a 3-0 lead in the first set and then held four straight times to win the first set. Monfils showed the first signs of pain in holding serve to open the second set, but after Melzer broke him to go up 2-1 it was clear that Monfils could not go on.
Monfils, who returned to the WSO this week after a four-week layoff because of a biceps injury and a sprained ankle, simply got to the point where he could not continue on. His serves in the second set were barely breaking 80 mph, and he was in obvious pain each time he tried to serve.
"For sure I am a bit sad because I am a big fighter," the 26-year-old Frenchman said. "But I want to say well done to Jurgen because he had a good week, so well done."
Monfils said after his win over Dolgopolov that the hip and abdomen problems did not come from one specific moment, but rather were the accumulation of playing four matches in four days after having been off for four weeks.
"It was not bad actually before the match," Monfils said. "It was sore but I thought I could play and finish it no matter what. But then it was like 50 minutes and I tried to serve like full speed, and there was one serve that was around 80, and that was it. Then I had like electricities coming up and it was not a little bit painful, it was really painful. It was very, very painful."
"He played great tennis the whole week," Melzer said. "He has had so many injuries, he said he pulled a stomach muscle and he couldn’t serve full and he didn’t want to risk anything more. He wants to be cautious. Having his history, it’s tough with injuries."
It was Melzer’s first career win over Monfils in five tries. And it was also Melzer’s first title with his new coach, Galo Blanco, who he hired on Aug. 6. Melzer said that he hasn’t made any significant changes under Blanco, but he is clearly refreshed by the coaching change.
"Of course when you hire a coach, that’s what you expect," Melzer quipped. "But no, I mean, he took me over in a tough moment in my career. I haven’t played any matches, I haven’t won any matches. I took four week off with a shoulder issue and I played terrible in Cincinnati, a shocking match against (Juan) Monaco, and then coming back a week after to be sitting here with a trophy, well, we put in a lot of work and it’s always a team that works together. It’s also my wife who is here to support me. Those two have done a fabulous job this week to get my mind in the right direction again, get my mindset right.
"It just feels like the partnership with Galo is a good one. Especially off the court, we get along really well and being 32 years old, I feel that’s important having a guy next to you that you trust, after such a short time. That’s the case. He’s a great guy in addition to being a great coach, and that’s important to me."
Both players had kind words for the tournament, which had nice crowds all week and a near-sellout crowd that packed Center Court on Saturday.
"This is great," Monfils said. "It truly is great. Sad because all the time I played well and now I could not make this finish line, but I had a great time. I discovered a new city. The people were nice. The tournament was nice. So I know it was a good experience here. Will I be back? Yeah, why not? Yeah."
Melzer has played in the WSO all three years, and most assuredly will be back to defend his title next year.
"It’s completely the opposite of what you have next week, and I like it," Melzer said. "You focus on the things you need to do. You come here and you have a plan for the week and no matter if you play well or you play bad, you still get the chance to work on your game. It’s a great facility. You have enough courts, you have the indoor courts if it rains. So they do a really good job with this tournament.
"I usually don’t like to play the week before a Slam, but this is a perfect preparation week, because being in New York a week early just gets you crazy."