By John Delong, Winston-Salem Open
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - John Millman was the lowest-ranked player in the field when the Winston-Salem Open started, outside of qualifiers and wild cards.
But the 27-year-old Australian has suddenly turned into the Cinderella story of the tournament.
Millman pulled the biggest upset of the tournament on Thursday afternoon as he stunned top-seeded Richard Gasquet 7-5, 6-3 in the quarterfinals.
The win moved Millman into the first ATP World Tour semifinal of his career. He’ll face 16th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta, a 6-4, 6-3 winner over 12th-seeded Andrey Kutznetsov in another quarterfinal, on Friday.
“It was tough out there,” Millman said. “Obviously I’ve got a lot of respect for Richard. I grew up watching him play. I love the way he plays. So to be able to compete with him today and go out there and beat him is very satisfying. I’m extremely proud of myself.”
Millman was ranked No. 91 when the 48-player Main Draw was held last Friday. On Monday, he moved up 10 spots and is currently ranked No. 81. This is his first career win over a player in the Top 20, with Gasquet currently ranked No. 15.
Millman has been globe-trotting in recent weeks. He has played Washington, Toronto, the Rio Olympics and Cincinnati in succession, going through qualifying and reaching the second round in Cincinnati last week.
He said that many players on the ATP World Tour are drained right now from all the travel, but he was able to work through it against Gasquet.
“To be honest with you, this tournament has been difficult physically,” Millman said. “It’s been a long few weeks. Rio Olympics, then Cincinnati which was just a long tournament for everyone. Then coming here, I was physically a little bit busted. But I’m moving great, I’m turning up every point, and I’m hitting the ball really well, which helps. So I just hope I can keep the train rolling.”
This was a gutty performance, for sure. Millman was down a break twice in the first set, but he wound up breaking Gasquet three straight times to take the first set 7-5. Then he was down a break at 3-1 in the second set, but then reeled off five straight games to win the match.
“I’m never one to give up,” Millman said. “I’ll only stop trying when the match is over. It was difficult, but I was determined to not give up and hang in there, and finally I got momentum. And momentum’s a really big thing in tennis.”
Interestingly, Millman had dug himself out of holes to win each of his first three matches. He beat Yoshihito Nishioka 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the first round, beat eighth-seeded Albert Ramos-Vinolas 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the second round and then knocked out Bjorn Fratangelo 5-7, 6-0, 6-3 in the third round.
Gasquet was playing in just his fifth match in five weeks, after suffering a back injury in his fourth-round match at Wimbledon. He had beat Daniel Evans 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in the second round and then Stephane Robert 6-1, 6-3 in the third round.
The 30-year-old Frenchman seemed to struggle with the heat and humidity on a draining afternoon on Stadium Court, and afterward he admitted his conditioning is still not where he would like it to be heading into next week’s US Open.
“It was very tough for me,” Gasquet said. “As I’ve said, I haven’t played for five weeks and of course physically I’m not at my best yet, so it was tough for me. He deserved to win. He played well. He played well from the baseline, he attacked when he had to do, and it made the difference.”
Gasquet said he was disappointed not to have made a deeper run here.
“I came to win, so to lose in a quarterfinal is disappointing,” he said. “I tried my best, but the conditions were very tough for me on the court and I was struggling much because my physical condition is not where it needs to be. I need to play and practice more and more.”
Carreno Busta was dominant in his 6-4, 6-3 victory over Kuznetsov, as he has been throughout the tournament. He has yet to lose a set, beating Jan-Lennard Struff 6-4, 7-5 in the second round and knocking off third-seeded Pablo Cuevas 6-3, 7-6 (1) in the third round.
“I’m very happy for this victory,” Carreno Busta said. “Two semifinals in the last three weeks for me, which I think is a good result. It’s always difficult to play good on this type of courts. I prefer clay but I am comfortable playing here, and I think I’m being better on this surface.”
The 25-year-old Spaniard is currently ranked No. 49. He made the semifinals in Los Cabos two weeks ago, and is having the best year of his career. He reached finals earlier this year in Estoril and Sao Paulo on clay and reached a career-high No. 43 in May.
“This year is going really good,” Carreno Busta said. “I made two finals, lost both but I think I played really good. Then maybe eight quarterfinals. It’s the first time I make eight quarterfinals in a year. I have won a lot of matches. Last year I think I won 15 matches all year, and this year maybe 25 or 26. So I think it’s a really good improvement for my tennis and for me. I would like to continue playing tennis like this.”