Monfils sets up Stepanek final
Washington - French top seed Gael Monfils saved a match point and edged John Isner 6-4, 3-6 7-6 (8/6) in a rain-disrupted match early Sunday to reach the final of the $1.4 million ATP Washington Classic.
Big-serving American Isner and fleet-footed showman Monfils staged a classic despite a rain delay at the start and two interruptions that pushed the end to 1:15 in the morning, when Isner netted a forehand after a Monfils lob winner.
After a split with Australian coach Roger Rasheed last month following three years together and a left wrist injury that kept him out for six weeks early in the season, seventh-ranked Monfils was thrilled to reach his first US final.
"I'm very happy," Monfils said. "It's not finished, but almost a great achievement. I have had a tough year. I had an injury and a new coach. To come up strong again, it feels good."
Monfils will play for his fourth career title in Sunday's championship match at the hardcourt event against 54th-ranked Czech Radek Stepanek, who ousted American Donald Young 6-3, 6-3, in the other semi-final.
"It will be a tough match," Monfils said. "He will be aggressive. I will have to be strong from the start because it won't be easy."
Stepanek has dropped five of seven meetings with Monfils, including their most recent clash two weeks ago on Hamburg clay.
"He's moving incredibly well," Stepanek said. "He's a great shotmaker."
Isner denied Monfils on two match points in the 10th game of the third set, smashing a forehand volley winner and a 130-mph ace that Monfils appealed to video replay only to find the system had failed.
"It's frustrating because on match point, the machine goes down," Monfils said. "That's the first time that has happened to me."
In the tie-breaker, neither player took a point off the other's serve until the decider. Isner blasted a 127-mph ace to reach his lone match point at 6-5, but Monfils answered with a 110-mph ace, setting up the drama-ending shots.
"The 6-all point he hit a huge second serve, put it on the line and lobbed me," Isner said. "It was a risky shot and then I cracked on match point."
Monfils reached his first ATP final since last November at the Paris Masters event and only his second outdoor hardcourt final since 2006, the other coming last year at Tokyo. His most recent title came last October at Montpellier.
Monfils, 24, must win five matches in four days to claim a fourth career ATP crown due to rain that forced him to play twice on Thursday.
Isner, ranked 35th, had won 11 of his prior 12 matches but saw his career rivalry with the Frenchman leveled at 3-3. Isner, 26, won their first meeting in a 2007 Washington semi-final that went to three tie-breakers.
Rain dogged Monfils and Isner, delaying their start, returning after they had played only seven points and striking again after Isner held to lead 5-2 in the second set, sending Monfils to talk with new coach Patrick Chamagne.
"I had the feel of his game and his serve," Monfils said. "I discussed with my coach and released all the frustration I had."
Monfils took the only break of the first set to lead 5-4 when Isner smacked a forehand wide and the Frenchman held serve with a 109-mph ace to win the set.
But Monfils netted a forehand drop volley in the second game of the second set and Isner rode the break to claim the set, the only disruption coming during a pause after a 107-mph Isner serve hit a spectator in the face.
Stepanek, the oldest player in the world's top 100 and oldest ATP finalist of the year at age 32, seeks his fifth career title in his first final since last year at Brisbane.
Stepanek, whose most recent ATP title came in 2009 at San Jose, could crack the top 30 with what he said would be the biggest title of his career.
"This tournament can give me a kick for the rest of the season," Stepanek said. "If I can make it to the US Open and be seeded, that would be great for me."
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