Julien Benneteau’s first mission at the Winston-Salem Open was to make it out of qualifying.
Six days and seven matches later, Benneteau is the surprise story of the tournament.
The 29-year-old Frenchman beat ninth-seeded Sergiy Stakhovsky 3-6, 7-6, 6-2 in the quarterfinals on Thursday night and advanced to Friday night’s semifinals against No. 10 seed Robin Haase.
Benneteau, currently ranked No. 131 in the South African Airways ATP rankings, said that his confidence has grown and grown as he went through three qualifying matches in two days, and then knocked off two seeded players since. He’s looking for the first ATP World Tour title of his 11-year career.
"I came here to play a lot of matches, so I am happy," Benneteau said. "This is my goal coming here. You know, when you have three matches in qualies you have more confidence. I had a nice draw, had a couple of good matches for the confidence, and now I’m playing well. I was not one of the favorites of the tournament but I know I can play good on this surface, and my physical condition is OK, and I am playing well."
Benneteau beat Mark Verryth and Oliver Sajous last Saturday in qualifying, then earned a spot in the Main Draw by beating Edouard Roger-Vasselin on Sunday. He beat Ricardo Mello in the first round, beat 16th-seeded Igor Kunitsyn in the second round, beat Igor Andreev in the third round, and then beat Stakhovsky.
"Here it is difficult because the qualifications you have to play three matches, and then it’s a 48 draw and not a 32 draw, so if you don’t have a bye you have to play six matches . So it’s tough. It’s very tough. It’s not usual. But I’m happy that it’s turning out my way."
Benneteau faced two match points in a wild second-set tiebreaker before finally prevailing 11-9. That seemed to take all the wind out of Stakhovsky’s sails, and Benneteau dominated the third set, breaking Stakhovsky three times.
"In the third set the momentum was mine and he was a little bit tired," Benneteau said. "His serve was not so good. All his game was a little bit more shaky than the first two sets. I could have won the set 6-love, but I missed some opportunities."
It’s the first ATP World Tour semifinal of the year for Benneteau. He’s trying to move back up the rankings after falling out of the Top 100 late last year. He said he is finally healthy again after suffering wrist problems that first arose at last year’s US Open.
"This is my goal in my career," he said. "When you are in semifinal you are close. I had a really bad injury last year in the US Open and it took me a long time to recover. Now I’m recovered 100 percent. It was a bad moment for me because I was playing maybe the best tennis of my career. But if I could do it last year, I can do it this year. Now I am fit and I don’t have any problems, so it’s just a matter of winning matches and getting back in the rankings to be able to play the 250 and 500 tournaments, to be maybe seeded in the 250, because it’s tough if you don’t."
In the night’s other quarterfinal, Haase knocked off the No. 3 seed Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-4, 6-4.
"I think I played a great match except for one game where I got broken in the second set," Haase said. "Except for that game I think I played a smart match, I played well, aggressive when I could, solid when I had to. So I was really happy with the match today."
Haase said he wouldn’t take Benneteau lightly.
"I don’t see him as a qualifier," Haase said. "He has been 35 in the world or 40 in the world and he’s a really great player. That’s why I’m looking forward to it. He played some tough matches and I hope that’s a small advantage for me, but also he played a lot of matches on hardcourt and I have only three. So I hope I win but it will be a tough match."