By John Delong
Benoit Paire came to the Winston-Salem Open with one thing in mind.
Others might have come to prepare for the US Open or just get a couple of matches in, but the 30-year-old Frenchman has talked all week about winning his third tournament of the year and the first hardcourt title of his career.
Paire took a major step in that direction on Friday night with a 1-6, 6-0,6-0 victory over Steve Johnson in one of the most bizarre matches in tournament history.
Paire will face Hubert Hurkacz, a 6-3, 6-4 winner over Denis Shapovalov in the night’s second semifinal, in Saturday’s championship match. The match is scheduled to start at 5 p.m.
Paire, ranked No. 30 in the latest rankings, is the tournament’s top seed. He said he felt a responsibility to play well because of the seeding.
“Of course when you are seeded No. 1, you come to win,” Paire said. “I have won a lot of matches this year so I came here to win the tournament. Some players just want matches for the US Open, but for me I like to win matches. I did the same in Lyon before Roland Garros, and I played well. So to me, I like to win as many matches as I can.”
Paire beat Prajnesh Gunneswaran in the second round after receiving a first-round bye. He then beat Ugo Humbert in the third round, and advanced to the semifinals by beating 2016 WSO champion Pablo Carreno Busta in a Friday afternoon quarterfinal.
Johnson, on the other hand, was playing his second match of the day, after he outlasted John Millman in three sets in the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon.
Johnson, ranked No. 82, seemed well on his way to the finals for the second year in a row when he won the first set 6-1. Paire seemed sluggish throughout the set. But Paire said that he started feeling better in the second set, and his play certainly reflected it.
From then on, the Frenchman didn’t lose another game.
“The first set I was not feeling very well,” Paire said. “But in the second set I was starting to feel better. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know the English word for how I was feeling. I think I ate some bad pizza. I was feeling bad, and I was telling my coach I don’t feel good. And then, I was feeling better.”
Paire said it looked to him as if Johnson got fatigued and ran out of gas in the second set. Johnson had to play two matches in one day twice during the tournament because of rain delays and postponements.
“Of course the weather conditions were good for me,” he said. “He played this morning a long match and so for sure it was to my advantage. Stevie is a good player. I have played him before so I knew how good he is.”
Hurkacz, the tournament’s No. 3 seed, was in control throughout against the second-seeded Shapovalov.
The 22-year-old from Poland was making his first ATP Tour appearance in a semifinal, so this will be his first career final as well.
“It feels great,” he said. “It was a long day but it was a really nice day for me. I’m very happy and I just hope I play a good match tomorrow.”
Hurkacz came into the tournament ranked No. 41, after being a career-high 40 last week. He has been playing well since reaching the third round at Wimbledon, and recently in Montreal he beat both Taylor Fritz and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Hurkacz had defeated Frances Tiafoe in Friday afternoon’s quarterfinals. Earlier in the week he beat Feliciano Lopez and Duckhee Lee.
“I think I served well,” Hurkacz said. “I was very good on my service games, and I was holding them quite easily. He had some break chances in the second set, and I was able to stay positive at the crucial moments.”
Paire is the third Frenchman to make a final at the WSO, joining Julien Benneteau in 2011 and Pierre-Hugues Herbert in 2015. Hurkacz is the second player from Poland to reach a WSO final, after Jerzy Janowicz reached the final in 2014.
“The final is always a different match,” Paire said. “It’s not like the first round, not even like a semifinal. The winner gets the trophy, and it’s something special. So for sure, I know how important it is for me. We’ll see tomorrow who can play the best. I’m going to try to have a good night and not think about it too much, and hopefully I can play well tomorrow.”