New York: Gael Monfils very nearly did enough on Thursday night to break up the all-star coaches reunion.
Mixing speeds and bright ideas in the gusting winds, he won the first two sets of this U.S. Open quarterfinal against Roger Federer. He even had two match points on Federer's serve in the 10th game of the fourth set.
But as has so often been the case through the years and the tournaments that matter most, the standing ovation would be for Federer, who rallied to win, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2.
Monfils might have the stuff of a showman, but Federer - even at age 33 with millions of dollars and 17 Grand Slam singles titles in the bank - still has the desire of a champion. And instead of Monfils making a breakthrough at Flushing Meadows, it will be Federer making a return to the semifinals for the first time since 2011.
He will do so in the company of his new coach, Stefan Edberg, the elegant, net-rushing Swede who won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1991 and 1992. Federer's opponent on Saturday will be the 14th-seeded Marin Cilic, the Croatian veteran who is now coached by former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic.
In the other semifinal, Novak Djokovic, now coached by former No. 1 Boris Becker, will face Kei Nishikori, now coached by former French Open champion Michael Chang.
Edberg, Ivanisevic, Becker and Chang all played against each other. And after nearly a full season, the evidence appears indisputable: Star players turned star coaches do make a difference.
"It's crazy and it's fun and it's great to see Michael, Stefan and Boris all in the semifinals," Ivanisevic said Thursday night. "We had so many great matches against each other, and now we are sitting there and we can't do anything, just clap and hope our guys are playing well and winning. Now one of us are going to win a Grand Slam again as a coach. Who? It's going to be interesting."
The only man who could have spoiled the symmetry was Monfils, who has no coach at all at the moment and seemed none the worse for the situation as he swept through his first four matches without dropping a set.
He won the first two against Federer, too, before Federer put a stop to the streak by winning the third. But with the crowd pulling against him, Monfils managed to shake off an early break of serve in the fourth by breaking Federer back to 2-2. His chance came with Federer serving at 4-5 and 15-40.
But Monfils decided to play it conservatively instead of boldly. Federer, with Edberg watching from the front row of the players' box, did the attacking, saving the first match point with a forehand volley that Monfils reached with his backhand and then missed.
Federer saved the second match point with a forehand winner down the line and then served out the game to get back to 5-5.
"I still thought the finish line was far for Gael," Federer said of losing the first two sets. "I knew I could play better tennis, and I got off to a good start and was feeling all right. But then when I was down two match points, I wasn't feeling so great anymore. I thought: 'This was it, the last point, man. Just go down fighting. Don't miss an easy shot and let him have it.'"
Monfils, clearly shaken, served consecutive double faults to lose his own serve in the next game, and Federer then served out the set.
The rest, to borrow a French word, was denouement. Federer, after a resurgent year, is back in the final four of the U.S. Open for the first time since 2011.
In the semifinal on Saturday he will face Cilic, whose last Grand Slam semifinal appearance occurred more than four years ago, an eternity in tennis years. The span included the peak of Cilic's years as a Croatian prodigy, a player graced with size and skill, but he never seemed to live up to the promise.
The low point came last year, when a doping suspension forced him to miss four months and sit out the U.S. Open. His ranking dipped to No. 37. He drew criticism from other players for the use of a banned stimulant, although he convinced an arbitrator that he was mostly not at fault.
A year later, Cilic has climbed out of that career valley. He beat sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (4), in the quarterfinals on Thursday, propelling himself into the semifinals of a major for the first time since he was a 21-year-old wonder at the 2010 Australian Open.
Cilic conquered swirling winds at Arthur Ashe Stadium, on a court his opponent was far more familiar with, only a few days after a grueling five-set match.
"This was an amazing day for me," Cilic said. "I had a very hard couple of years, but I'm very happy. I'm very happy to break through here on this court."
Cilic, the 14th seed, had beaten Berdych in the third round at Wimbledon, but the hardcourt at the Open seemed to favor Berdych's bigger serve and his deeper experience on one of tennis's biggest stages.
The conventional wisdom proved to be wrong. Berdych could not figure out the wind during the first two sets, dropping his first two service games and four of his first five. He eventually found his way, but by then Cilic had won the first two sets and was reveling in the upgrades to his game, including a powerful serve of his own.
"We are both hitting big, and it's a matter of who was going to put pressure on the other guy," Cilic said. "I think I did a little bit better today. I was returning a bit better, and I was putting a little bit more pressure on his second serve. Just overall, I felt that I used the wind a little bit better to my advantage."
Cilic's serve peaked at 132 mph, as strong as Berdych's and far more effective.
That made Cilic's coach very happy. A year ago, during his suspension, Cilic turned to Ivanisevic, his boyhood hero, to coach him. Ivanisevic, a Wimbledon champion who competed for 12 years at the top level of the sport, was known for his explosive serve - and temper.
It was the serve that Ivanesevic wanted to teach to the 6-foot-6 Cilic.
Against Berdych, Cilic had 19 aces and many other serves large enough to set up easy points. His serve is the most noticeable improvement since his forced hiatus, a time that Cilic credits for his new success.
"I matured a bit more, and I was working day after day," he said. "I wasn't, you know, relaxing and doing nothing. So I think that helped me to improve physically. Also, it helped me to have, you know, enough time to put some new parts in my game, which are helping me to play this good now."
That newfound maturity helped him against Berdych, who seemed to come unglued when the umpire, Louise Azemar Engzell, called a point against him in the third set, ruling that the ball had bounced twice before he hit it. He did not win the argument or the game, losing his poise and his last chance to be competitive.
© 2014 New York Times News Service