- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

NEW YORK — Roger Federer sneered, tossed his racket in disgust. Horror of horrors, he lost a set.

For most of the U.S. Open, the defending champion and top seed had seemed to sleepwalk through his matches, playing only as well as necessary, waking up and painting lines when pressed. He made up shots as he went along — a sprinkling of aces at various speeds and angles, a backhand pass that got him out of trouble, a volley that came out of nowhere between yawns.

That was enough until he got into a little trouble against Nicolas Kiefer yesterday. Suddenly Federer had a reason to elevate his game and stir some emotion. Now he swept in toward the net, pounded winners from the baseline, stopped wasting time and effort.

Under just the hint of pressure, Federer produced his best tennis of the tournament to beat Kiefer 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4 and land safely in the quarterfinals. Match point was a masterful final stroke — an inside-out forehand crosscourt that Federer tucked neatly in the corner, far from Kiefer’s reach.

Women’s top seed Maria Sharapova also yielded a set for the first time in the tournament before beating fellow Russian Nadia Petrova, the ninth seed, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, to reach the semifinals against the winner of last night’s late Venus Williams-Kim Clijsters match.

The 24-year-old Federer lost only one set on the way to his third Wimbledon title two months ago, and that also was against Kiefer, who gives him tough matches but can’t quite win. Federer has beaten the German six straight times, four of them this year.

After losing the second-set tiebreaker when he netted a backhand half-volley, Federer found himself in difficulty at 3-3 in the third when he faced double break point at 15-40. His answer: a 120 mph service winner to save one break point, a brilliant backhand crosscourt pass to save another. Kiefer made two errors after that and his opportunity was gone.

“That game was huge, absolutely,” Federer said. “I was not so happy the way I was playing, especially in the second set. Third was getting better, especially after that pass. I really felt that shift in momentum. I took advantage of that. In the fourth set, I started to feel like I’m really in control again where I didn’t feel that way at all before. I had the feeling actually momentum was all on his side.”

Like an artist standing back to admire his work, Federer watched a replay on the giant screen of the backhand pass that saved break point.

“I knew the moment I hit it that the ball is going to be in,” he said. “I knew that he’s not going to be there, and I knew that I’m back in the game, back in the match. I knew the importance of that shot. It was important from then to hold and not let it slip away. So I did well there.”

As dominant as Federer has been on grass the past few years, he’s no less the ruler of hard courts. He’s won 32 straight matches on the surface and is 42-1 on it this year, his lone loss coming in January against Marat Safin in the Australian Open semifinals. Overall this year, Federer is 68-3.

Federer next plays 11th-seeded David Nalbandian of Argentina, a 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-2 victor over Italian Davide Sanguinetti. Federer said before that match he would prefer Nalbandian, “because I have a bad record against him.”

Former champion John McEnroe liked that.

“Most guys would like to play the guy they have the winning record against,” McEnroe said when he stepped outside the broadcast booth. “That’s what you love about Roger - he embraces the challenge.”

Nalbandian holds a 5-2 record against Federer, though Federer won the last two meetings in 2003 and ‘04.

“I like to play against guys who have beaten me, especially early in the career, try to get them back,” Federer said. “He was a tough opponent for me for a long, long time.”

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