Dubai 2019: Monfils in fighting form to seal SF place against Greek star Tsitsipas
Gael Monfils will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi-finals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
The dazzling form of Gael Monfils has continued to catch the eye in Dubai after doing just the same in Rotterdam a fortnight ago.
In the Dutch city, the athletic Frenchman showed that he was well and truly on his way back to form after a career littered by physical problems. The former world No6 missed six Masters events in 2017 and five in 2018 due to illness and assorted injuries.
Already with a semi run in Sofia, he beat No8 seed David Goffin, and No5 seed Daniil Medvedev, before downing his friend Stan Wawrinka in a pulsating Rotterdam final.
Now he was into his second Dubai quarter-final in three years with an 11-2 record on the season, and trying to reach his third semi-final or better this year.
He seemed to be playing with greater physical and mental confidence than in the past, and when he is playing well, Monfils is an outstanding player. He admitted he felt differently these days:
“Definitely. New goals, new team, new routine. Obviously wins under my belt. Everything is going fine. I just try to keep doing what I’m doing. Every day a little more, a little more to improve, definitely try to reach my goal this year.”
He took on the Lithuanian qualifier Ricardas Berankis, ranked 113, for only the second time, the first being five years ago. But while he was 1-1 on the main tour this season, he did win the Challenger in Rennes at the start of the year, and here, he had beaten No8 seed Daniil Medvedev and Denis Kudla for the loss of just 11 games.
Much the shorter man, standing just 5ft 9ins, Berankis boasted an aggressive game and great hands, eager to come to the net to finish points, and to throw in angled drop-shots, take time away from his opponent.
Against Monfils, it promised to be a dangerous tactic, for the Frenchman is tall and fast, with outstanding defence. Sure enough, Monfils raced through the first set, breaking twice, in 24 minutes.
In the second set, Berankis got the first break, 4-2, with a net finish, but Monfils hit straight back and held for 4-4. He upped his own aggression, picked off a forehand down the line for break point, and at the third time of asking, broke back, 5-4: He would serve for the match.
Indeed, the Frenchman seemed to be cruising, but Berankis’s feisty game got its reward and he broke again. After fending off a break point, it would go to a tie-break.
And after the first point, Berankis never trailed, running away with the set, 7-6(3), in an unexpected turn in the match.
It pricked Monfils, who was frustrated that his own aggressive game plan had been knocked out of kilter. He admitted afterwards:
“He played a bit better. He was a bit more aggressive. I couldn’t really find my rhythm, as well. I felt he was a bit more pumped. It was tougher for me. I really had to get upset and bring more energy for me, to move more my legs, to be a bit more aggressive on my shots, more aggression on every shot. That was it.”
And it showed in the third set, especially after Berankis got a quick break to lead 2-1. Monfils was missing his first serve, and the speed of the Lithuanian took advantage. The anger showed in the Frenchman as he gritted his teeth, pumped his first, dug deep, and broke straight back.
He then came back from two explosive forehand winners by Berankis to hold, and broke again. A steely love hold, a roar to his box, and he was ready to grab the match. Sure enough, he broke once again for set and match, 6-2, after almost two hours.
Of those closing games, he was very frank:
“The last three games was just pure anger, intensity of my all shots. Still I’m aggressive, but I was little bit worried. He was better, but I want to be closer. I want this match even more. The intensity, definitely it’s something positive.”
And he gave great credit to Berankis:
“I mean, he was very aggressive. He hit big the ball. He hit big the ball. He was quick. Honestly, was amazing how quick he was on all my passing shot. I felt he was there all the time. I think I’m quite good. It was quite tricky for me.”
However, the focus, killer instinct, and fitness to execute against such a tricky opponent is what has brought such success to Monfils this season. He will be a truly formidable prospect for the winner of the second match, between No5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and Hubert Hurkacz.
Tsitsipas, fresh from a 13-4 start to the season, and the title last week in Marseille, arrived at a career-high No11 with two wins in the bag, and into his second quarter-final in Dubai. The charismatic 20-year-old was thus the favourite against the 77-ranked 22-year-old Pole, especially as he had scored two wins in the last three months, including last week in Marseille.
Remarkably, Hurkacz was appearing in his first career ATP quarter-final after his first top-10 win over No6 Kei Nishikori this week. And he put up a strong fight, getting the first break against Tsitsipas. But it did not last long: The Greek surged to the net, a popular play for the young single-hander, and broke back.
But there really was little in it as they then headed to a tie-break, still all square when they changed ends at 3-3. Now, Tsitsipas sensed his moment to attack, plucked a smash winner out of the air, and came through a superb rally that saw Hurkacz recover from a fall but unable to hold off the attack. Tsitsipas took the set, 7-6(4).
The second set saw the Greek take early control with a quick break, and he held the advantage through to 5-4, though this was far from one-sided.
Serving for the match, Hurkacz earned three break chances, and Tsitsipas put a forehand long on the last of them: 5-5. Despite the Pole getting a break-back chance for the set, it went to another tie-break, and this time Hurkacz took to the net to open things up for winners, two of which won the set, 7-6(1).
In the end, however, Tsitsipas wrenched control, broke in the second game, and opened a 5-0 lead with a love hold. Hurkacz broke his duck after a couple of deuces, but the popular young Greek finally served it out with ease, 6-1, after two and a quarter hours.