- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2009

PARIS | Fresh off a ragged, rugged, five-set French Open semifinal victory Friday, Roger Federer was leaving for the night when a dozen or so fans drew his attention.

They wanted photos and autographs. Federer obliged, signing hats, a poster, even one guy’s white polo shirt. As Federer ambled off, a man shouted: “Win on Sunday! Please!”

Pausing for a moment before sliding into a car, Federer turned and, with a quick wave of his skilled right arm, replied, “OK.” Ah, if only it were that simple. For all his accomplishments, for all his trophies and records, Federer now wants - needs? - to do something he never has: Win a final at Roland Garros.

By coming back to beat No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro 3-6, 7-6 (2), 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 on Friday, Federer moved within a victory of his first French Open championship - and so much more.

If he can beat No. 23 Robin Soderling on Sunday, Federer also will tie Pete Sampras’ career mark of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. And he will become only the sixth man with a career Grand Slam, at least one title from each of tennis’ four majors.

“There’s still one more step,” Federer said.

He has come this close in the past, losing each of the past three French Open finals to Rafael Nadal. But this time, Nadal is not around to torment Federer, having been stunned by Soderling in the fourth round.

“Obviously,” Federer said, “it’s nice to see someone else for a change.”

Since the start of the 2005 French Open, Federer is 0-4 against Nadal at Roland Garros, 29-0 against everyone else. Similarly, during the course of his career, Federer is 2-5 against Nadal in Grand Slam finals, 11-0 against all other opponents.

Federer has a 9-0 career record against Soderling, who will be playing in his first Grand Slam final. He had never been past the third round in 21 previous majors but reeled off the last five games of a 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 victory against No. 12 Fernando Gonzalez in Friday’s first semifinal.

Does Soderling believe he has a chance against Federer?

“He’s going to be the favorite, by far,” Soderling said. “But I think Nadal was the favorite against me as well.”

Soderling’s first Grand Slam championship match will be Federer’s 19th, matching Ivan Lendl’s record, and the Swiss star’s 15th in the past 16 major tournaments.

Then again, Federer held similar edges in experience and head-to-head matchups against del Potro, a 20-year-old playing in his first major semifinal. Federer was in his 20th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal - double the second-longest streak in men’s play - and had won all 12 previous sets across five matches with del Potro.

Yet early on the 6-foot-6 del Potro played fantastically, using his long legs to speed around the court and his long arms to whip winners punctuated by loud grunts.

“He came out of the blocks really strong,” Federer said.

Federer did not, even slapping himself in the face after one poorly executed point. Five miscues by a suddenly tight del Potro in the tiebreaker ceded the second set, and it took Federer 2 1/2 hours to convert a break point.

When he did, it put Federer ahead 3-1 in the fourth set and really got him going. He broke del Potro twice more to level things at two sets apiece.

“A five-set match is a test,” Federer said.

The light was fading, the wind was swirling and the temperature dipped below 60 degrees. Not surprisingly, Federer dealt with the conditions better than del Potro.

“That match escaped me,” a subdued del Potro said. “I really wanted to be in that final, and now I’m going to have to watch it on TV.”

After double-faulting to hand Federer a 4-3 lead, del Potro trudged to the sideline with head bowed, while many spectators rose to yell, applaud and serenade their man: “Roh-zher! Roh-zher!”

Three games later, Federer served it out, closing with consecutive forehand winners. He whirled around and glanced at the guest box - at his pregnant wife, at his parents, at pal Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief - then walked to the net, placed both hands on the tape and leaned over, looking at the clay court that has bedeviled him in the past.

Surely he was thinking: One more to go.

“It feels great coming through tough matches like this,” said Federer, who also needed five sets to get past Tommy Haas in the fourth round. “It’s more emotional. It’s more satisfaction.”

Del Potro threw an arm around Federer and told him, “Everybody wants you to lift the trophy.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide