By John Delong
Last year, Gael Monfils missed four months because of knee problems.
Before coming to this week’s Winston-Salem Open, Monfils had missed four straight weeks because of separate injuries to his biceps and ankle.
On Friday afternoon in his semifinal match against Alexandr Dolgopolov, he had to deal with yet another injury – a strained left abdomen early in the match that forced him flat on his back as he received medical attention.
But the 26-year-old Frenchman’s resiliency was never more evident as gutted out a 7-6 (9), 6-3 victory to move into Saturday’s finals against either Sam Querrey or Jurgen Melzer where he will be looking to win the fifth ATP title of his career.
Monfils came from two breaks down and then fought off three set points in the tiebreak to win the first set, then broke Dolgopolov early in the second set and held serve the rest of the way.
Monfils wasn’t totally satisfied with his play – saying it was a notch below his third-round victory over No. 4 seed Tommy Robredo – but he was certainly pleased with the way he handled the adversity.
"It is very good for my confidence," said Monfils, who came into the WSO ranked No. 43 and was the tournament’s No. 15 seed. "It’s always good to be down two breaks and then win the set. But I’m not so happy with the way I played. I think I could have played better. I still think the best match I played here was against Tommy. So, you know, hopefully tomorrow I will play better and show better tennis."
Monfils seemed to be laboring from the very start of the match and was quickly broken twice. He called on the ATP trainer just 11 minutes into the match, and seemed to be in significant pain.
He said there was no one single incident that caused the injury, that it was more likely the accumulation of training so hard to come back from the ankle and biceps problems before the start of next week’s US Open.
"It was an accumulation," the former World No. 7 said. "It’s tough when you’re out from the tour and come back, and obviously I’m playing great tennis but even when you practice it’s not the same. Your body is not taking the same, and it’s the shock. I had been a couple weeks off and to come play three big matches, I wasn’t sure how my body would react. But everything’s fine and good. Sometimes in matches you have this. I’ve had this pain before. But it’s nothing terrible."
He said he never seriously considered retiring.
"If I pull out of a match it will have to hurt me a lot," he said. "I’ve been through a lot with my body and actually I can sometimes play with pain. As you know, I’m tough. I have a little injury but I’m tough. I asked the physio if it was a great idea if I put force on it, what he thought about it, and he said ‘Walk on it and see about it,’ and it was a bit better. So I told him I was going to try it again, and obviously it was a great decision. And then in the second set, it got warmer, and I got through it."
Monfils actually trailed 4-0 as Dolgopolov held serve following the medical timeout, but he regrouped and broke Dolgopolov twice to force the first-set tiebreak. He then fought off set points at 5-6, 6-7 and 7-8 before assuming control.
Then Monfils broke the No. 10 seed Dolgopolov in the third game of the second set, and eventually he closed out the match by breaking Dolgopolov one final time.
Dolgopolov, the 24-year-old from the Ukraine who came into the week ranked No. 38, admitted that he got rattled after Monfils stormed back in the first set.
"That’s pretty much why I couldn’t really play full in the second set," Dolgopolov said. "I was angry at myself that I had too many chances. I had him 15-30 at 4-love, 30-15 on 4-1, set point on my serve (in the tiebreak), so too many chances. And then when you have that in your mind, plus after three matches every day, it’s a bit tough to make yourself really go out and forget about it.
"So of course it was not my best finish. I did not finish off the important points. So I’m pretty frustrated."
Dolgopolov, who has played in the WSO in each of the first three years, said he was pleased nonetheless with his performance this week. He beat Daniel Gimeno-Traver, Juan Monaco and Yen-Hsun Lu in his first three matches.
"For sure, I had four good matches and all of them were tight," Dolgopolov said. "The first two I lost the first set and yesterday I won 7-6 and then it was a bit easier in the second set. Today was a tight match. So for sure it’s good. I had a lot of matches, a lot of points, a lot of sets, so that’s great and I just need to get some rest and look forward to the Open."