23 Feb VETERANS MAKE THEIR CASE IN AFTERNOON QUARTERFINAL
By Steve Dorsey
DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – The NextGen players have made headlines at the ATP World Tour Delray Beach Open this week, with four of them advancing to the quarterfinals. But it was two veterans who owned the Stadium court Friday afternoon at the Delray Beach Tennis Center.
A pair of 28-year-olds, American Steve Johnson and German Peter Gojowczyk, punched their tickets into the semifinals with straight-sets victories Friday. Johnson ousted Russian Evgeny Donskoy 6-1, 6-4, and Gojowczyk tamed wild card Next-Gen American Reilly Opelka 7-6 (5), 6-3.
Johnson, ranked No. 51 in the world, has not lost a set in his three matches here this week that included a straight-sets win against No. 9 seed Milos Raonic in the second round. He won five straight games to take the first set, then broke Donskoy to open the second set and held serve the remainder of the match.
Johnson has now beaten Donskoy all three of their meetings, including the 2016 U.S Open when Johnson surged back from down 2-0 in sets and love-40 on match point of the third set to win the match in five sets.
“You never know what kind of residual feelings he may have going into a match, but I wasn’t expecting him to just roll over,” Johnson said when asked about that remarkable comeback two years ago. “I had a tough early game and got out of it, and I think that maybe broke his spirits a bit and I was able to rattle off five games in the first (set).”
Johnson pointed to the sky after his win, a gesture to his late father who passed away last spring.
Johnson played tennis at Orange High School in Southern California where his dad coached. A diehard Angels baseball fan, he would take his son and family to Angels games and was beloved and well-known among the Southern California tennis community and an inspiration to his son.
“Every day is different, some good, some bad. It’s hard to put into words,” Johnson said of the still lingering emotions of losing his father.
Saturday will be Johnson’s first semifinal this year and he said that he feels this week he has been closing out matches better.
“Last year, I had a string of losing to the eventual champion five or six straight events, so hopefully it doesn’t happen this week and I can be the champion,” Johnson said of his bid to capture his third career ATP title. “I’ve put myself in a good position to get to the final and that’s exactly what I want to do.”
Gojowczyk, meanwhile, has been a giant killer of sorts here this week, ousting two of the tallest players on the ATP World Tour. He upset 6-foot-10 No. 6 seed John Isner in the second round and sent the 6-11 Opelka packing Friday afternoon despite the lanky American delivering 15 aces and winning 80 percent of his first-serve points. Gojowczyk countered those stats by winning 90 percent of his first-serve points.
“I’m very happy with my game today,” Gojowczyk said. “I didn’t give him too many chances. I was very solid from the baseline. Very happy that I won that tiebreak.”
Opelka, who upset 2017 Delray champion and No. 1 seed Jack Sock in the second round, said he knew he would need to be on top of his game to defeat Gojowczyk.
“I kind of expected it,” Opelka said of the outcome against Gojowczyk. “He’s beaten me the past two times pretty bad. He’s got my number. He’s a great player and I knew I had my hands full. . . . It was a great week. I’m playing a lot better than I have in the past.”
Opelka said that he believes Gojowczyk is much better than his No. 64 world ranking.
“I think he’s probably the best player I’ve ever played, to be honest. It’s been no surprise (how he’s risen in the rankings),” Opelka said. “He’s tough. I never want to play him again.”
Gojowczyk won his first ATP title last year at Metz and this will be his first semifinal appearance since then. He’s expecting a different challenge against Johnson on Saturday.
“This will be a totally different match than my last two matches because I’ve played some huge service guys,” Gojowczyk said. “(Johnson) played very well today. Have to play more from the baseline, that’s for sure.”