Watching Gael Monfils in the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Tuesday, it was impossible to tell that he was winning his match in straight sets, or that he had not dropped a set in the tournament.
He spent most of his time between points muttering to himself in French, often while gesturing to no one in particular with his racket. He argued with the umpire.
On one or two points, he simply stopped playing. He returned one of Grigor Dimitrov's serves straight into the stands, seemingly on purpose.
The scoreboard, however, told the real story. Monfils beat the No. 7-seeded Dimitrov, 7-5, 7-6 (6), 7-5, lifting himself into the quarterfinals for only the second time in his eight U.S. Open appearances. In the brutal heat of Tuesday afternoon on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court, another straight-sets victory seemed like a gift from above, even if Monfils didn't appear to enjoy it much.
Afterward, though, he was all smiles.
"It is because I love to play here," Monfils said of his victory. "I have such a good feeling here. I just feel good. I am happy, so I deliver a good game."
Monfils, the No. 20 seed, has always loved to play here. After his home country's French Open, it is his favorite Grand Slam tournament. He plays to the crowd with a showman's flair. His results have not matched that affinity, and he said that up until Tuesday, he had never won a match in Ashe Stadium.
"I would say this time I am maybe a little bit lucky," Monfils said. "I think I played good. But I haven't changed a lot. I played maybe more solid today, but I stay the same."
Against Dimitrov, Monfils showed off his refurbished game, less reliant on long, grueling points and more on some quick-strike efficiency. He served well, with 14 aces, and lost his serve only once. He continued his trademark of running around many balls to get to his forehand, but his backhand was effective, too.
That game showed no signs that it hasn't been directed lately by a coach, which Monfils has been doing without lately. He is asked regularly about when he will hire a new one, but after this match, he said finding the right one wasn't so easy, particularly because of his mercurial personality, not to mention his unconventional game.
"The person has to fit my personality," Monfils said. "I am a hard worker, but I am not easy."
While Monfils unraveled in between points, he stayed composed while the ball was in play, which could not be said of his opponent. Dimitrov, despite his high seed, has not done spectacularly well in big matches. He did reach the semifinals of Wimbledon this year, his best showing at a Grand Slam, but in three previous U.S. Opens, he has lost in the first round.
Dimitrov had a lead in the second-set tiebreaker and was serving to take command, but sent two forehands wildly long to squander those opportunities, while Monfils dug in and battled back to win. In the third set, which contained some of the most acrobatic and dramatic points of the match, Dimitrov seemed poised to force a tiebreaker, only to spray several errors to reach break point before double-faulting on the final point.
"Where should I begin?" Dimitrov said. "Just a bad match for me. Didn't play as close to the way I wanted to, and I think it was a great stage for me to come out on there on the center court and perform my best. Just everything went the opposite way today.
"Of course, I have to give credit to Gael that he played a really good match, but I also did a lot of unforced errors and that cost a lot. Six-3 in the tiebreak, I had all odds on me. And it was just poor shot selection. Eventually I didn't execute at the right time."
With the victory, Monfils advanced and will face No. 2 Roger Federer, who defeated Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, in another fourth-round match Tuesday night.
Monfils should carry a measure of confidence into the match because of his strong play at the U.S. Open so far. He has beaten Federer twice in their nine career matches, with both victories coming on hardcourts. Their only meetings at a Grand Slam have come at the French Open, and even though Monfils' best surface has been clay, Federer won all three of those matches.
The winner of the Federer-Monfils match could meet No. 14 Marin Cilic in the semifinals, after he outlasted No. 26 Gilles Simon in a five-set match at Louis Armstrong Stadium that lasted 4 hours 13 minutes, the fourth-longest match of the tournament so far.
The two men battled in broiling conditions until the sun finally dipped below the stands, a welcome reprieve for players and fans alike. Cilic said he got his second wind in the fifth set, where he had five of his 23 aces to wrap up a 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory.
Cilic, a hard-hitting Croat, reached his third U.S. Open quarterfinal since 2009, and his second straight at a Grand Slam event this year after reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon as the No. 26 seed. He won Tuesday even after committing 76 unforced errors against Simon, who was battling a back injury and required treatment several times early in the match.
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