- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008

NEW YORK | As the break points and the set points slipped away, as his shouts of self-admonishment grew louder, it was hard to imagine Roger Federer was having this tough a time in his U.S. Open quarterfinal against a man ranked 130th.

A man who arrived at Flushing Meadows with a 3-4 tour record this year.

A man who was kicked out of his hotel because it didn’t occur to him to book a room long enough to stay past the third round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.

Fans used to watch Federer hoping to be awed by his brilliance. Now they wonder: Is he going to hang on? For the most part, even during this poor-by-his-standards season, he does get by. Federer did just that Thursday, shaking off missed opportunities to beat qualifier Gilles Muller of Luxembourg 7-6 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (5) and extend his own record by reaching the semifinals at an 18th consecutive Grand Slam tournament.

“He created a monster like he said a couple years ago. He won everything. And now everybody expects him to win everything, and, I mean, he’s also just human,” Muller said. “Even today … you could still see why he was No. 1 - and still No. 2 now. Every time the score was tied, he came up with a better shot.”

It was Federer’s 32nd straight victory at the U.S. Open, where he has won the past four championships. The only man to have won more matches or titles in a row at this tournament was Bill Tilden in the 1920s.

Federer spoke proudly of his run of major semifinals; no other man has topped 10.

“A huge streak,” he said. “I hope this time around I can take it a step further than I did in Paris or Wimbledon.”

Even he focuses on his missteps, making reference there to his losses to Rafael Nadal in the past two Grand Slam finals.

Bidding for a 13th major title, which would move him one shy of Pete Sampras’ record, Federer will meet No. 3 Novak Djokovic, a 6-2, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) winner over No. 8 Andy Roddick last night, in the semifinals.

Federer is 6-2 against Djokovic. Federer also beat Djokovic in last year’s final here.

The other men’s semifinal is No. 1 Nadal vs. No. 6 Andy Murray.

Federer spent a record 237 consecutive weeks atop the rankings from February 2004 until last month, when Nadal supplanted him. That’s only one of several streaks Federer has seen snapped in 2008.

He reached a record 10 consecutive major finals until losing to Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals in January. He won a record-tying five consecutive Wimbledon titles until losing a 9-7 fifth set to Nadal in near-darkness in July. He was seeded No. 1 at 18 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments until Nadal relegated him to No. 2 at this one.

“There’s a lot at stake for him, obviously, as far as, you know, not having won a major this year and losing a No. 1 ranking. So he seems to be obviously very focused and is playing better,” said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain who also is coaching Roddick.

“I don’t think he’s playing quite at the level that he was in the last couple years, but he’s certainly capable of turning it around,” McEnroe added.

Federer did exactly that in the final tiebreaker against Muller. Trailing 4-1, Federer took six of the final seven points, including a cross-court backhand passing shot to get to match point. It was the sort of spectacular stroke Federer often produces, but he marked this one with a loud shout of “Come on!”

When Muller put a backhand into the net on the next point, the tighter-than-expected match was over, and Federer finally could leap in the air and scream again. He let out several yelps during the afternoon, sometimes in anger, sometimes in delight, and sometimes it was tough to understand in which language (Swiss German, French or English). Once, he let out a high-pitched “Woooo!”

A more combustible Federer has been on display throughout this U.S. Open. A less overpowering Federer has been on display throughout this season.

“I guess for a while I put my head down in the matches and just tried to keep that unbelievable run I had going instead of trying to disturb myself with, you know, any sort of reactions really,” he acknowledged.

“Who knows? Maybe it is just a couple of weeks, and I’m going crazy, and after that you’ll see me more relaxed again.”

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