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Gael Monfils out to prove he's more than a showman

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Monfils doesn't dive for the people -- he dives to win (1:02)

Gael Monfils says he doesn't go for ridiculous shots to entertain the crowd. He does it to win the match. (1:02)

NEW YORK -- As Gael Monfils matches go, his US Open quarterfinal clash with French countryman Lucas Pouille might have seemed a big, old bore. It lacked the spectacular circus shots and athletic feats that have become Monfils' trademark. It was missing the gut-wrenching drama he created in his 2014 French Open quarterfinal with Andy Murray and the shot-making fireworks of his five-set quarterfinal dogfight with Roger Federer at Arthur Ashe Stadium the same year.

Even so, Monfils' performance Tuesday got him something those other storied battles did not: a place in a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time in eight years. Playing cold, no-nonsense tennis, Monfils bounced a flat Pouille 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in a hair over two hours.

Pouille, 10-10 in Grand Slam matches and just 22 years old, was bidding to become the first man in Open tennis history to win four consecutive five-set matches at a major. He showed why no one has been able to pull off the feat with a game that faded gradually but inexorably, like the signal of a radio station on a long car ride.

"I was a bit tired today," Pouille admitted afterward. "I played four matches, one in four sets and then all three in five. It would have been better if I played a bit less time on court. It's OK. I did my best."

Pouille's self-induced shortcomings shouldn't be counted against Monfils. He played a gem of a match, tagging 13 aces at speeds of up to 135 mph. His groundstrokes were crisp and purposeful, beautifully balanced between consistency and probing aggression. Monfils knew that moving Pouille would pay dividends.

Pouille's fluorescent pink and yellow outfit seemed more apropos for a day at the beach; perhaps that's why he so often seemed to be running in sand. He never managed to get to break point, and not even a lifeguard could have saved Pouille from drowning in 44 unforced errors, compared to 15 by Monfils.

Even a fit Pouille would have had his hands full with this version of Monfils. The No. 10 seed here, Monfils is 18-2 on hard courts since Wimbledon and has now won 19 straight sets since he absorbed a bitter loss from match point up against Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals at the recent Olympic Games.

Monfils is competing with a steely glint in his eye, but he denies it's because he's less concerned with showmanship and dazzling feats of athleticism than finding ways to win. Two days ago, during his fourth-round match against Marcos Baghdatis, he paused mid-point to -- no kidding -- fiddle with a shoelace.

"It was just one point in a perfect, clean win against Baghdatis," Monfils said. "[But] you make it up like, 'Oh, he's doing a show.'"

The other thing that sticks in Monfils' craw is the way pundits don't seem to understand that there's no rule that walloping a full 360-degree helicopter smash can't be fun and a great way to win a point. "Today, if I had a 360 smash, definitely I [would have] done it, but I didn't get the ball," he said.

Monfils added that those frequent diving volleys and retrieves aren't attempts to leap straight into the hearts of his audience. "Come on," he said. "To be honest, I gonna hurt myself for people? No. I dive because I want to win the point. What's the point to make the show and lose, actually?"

All true, but it's also a fact that Monfils recently turned 30. Some of the abandon that once characterized his game must have been tempered over the years by experience, as well as his long history of injury. He has been healthy lately, which is partly the reason for his surge in the rankings. He said he has been more careful about his fitness and has adopted some new training habits. But that doesn't mean he is reining in his explosive impulses and instincts or making concessions to age.

"I think I'm very blessed genetically," he said. "I guess the only thing that is a bit different is the recovery. I think it's a bit tougher. But if [that's] not [in play], I'm even stronger than before."

A stronger, healthy, focused Monfils spells danger for every other player on the tour. Monfils is high on the short list of best active players who haven't played a Grand Slam final, and on his recent form, it's clear he's at or near the peak of his powers. His concentration hasn't wavered, either. His serve is simply blazing. He won 85 of his first serve points against Pouille, who was able to get just 66 percent of Monfils serves back into play.

Monfils seems to have unearthed an important lesson in all this: "Now that I get to be more consistent with the winning, it's tougher for some people to say that I'm just a showman."

Welcome to the real world.