- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

PARIS | Close doesn’t count. Roger Federer knows that as well as anyone.

Still, even Federer had to acknowledge he found himself in a much tighter and tougher match than he would have expected - or is used to - in the French Open’s second round Thursday before producing a 7-6 (8), 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-2 victory against Jose Acasuso.

How near did the 45th-ranked Acasuso come to a startling upset - in straight sets, no less? On four occasions, the Argentine was a point from taking the first set. After winning the second, he held a set point in the third.

Federer, whose season hasn’t been up to his high standards, was up to the task each time.

“Mentally, I’ve always been very strong, but I’m not being put in a position like this very often, you know,” Federer said. Then, moments later, as if to make sure everyone understood him, Federer added: “Coming through such a match is always a great feeling. Like I said, I’m not part of such close matches that often.”

Particularly at this stage of a Grand Slam tournament. And particularly against anyone other than Rafael Nadal, who supplanted Federer at No. 1 in the rankings last year and edged him in five-set Wimbledon and Australian Open finals.

“I thought,” Acasuso said, “I could have won this match.”

But this has not been a French Open for underdogs or upsets, and no seeded men lost Thursday, when the winners included No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro, No. 6 Andy Roddick, No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 10 Nikolay Davydenko, No. 11 Gael Monfils and No. 16 Tommy Robredo.

Four seeded women went home, though none higher than No. 13 Marion Bartoli. Those moving into the third round included both Williams sisters - Venus needed three sets, Serena two - No. 5 Jelena Jankovic, No. 7 Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 4 Elena Dementieva, who advanced when Jelena Dokic stopped playing because of a bad back while leading 6-2, 3-4.

“I really don’t deserve to win today because of the way I was playing,” Dementieva said.

The biggest surprise might have been how well Roddick played, given that he hadn’t made the third round at Roland Garros since his 2001 tournament debut.

“There’s a lot of work to go,” said Roddick, the only U.S. man remaining of the nine who entered the tournament. “By no means have I accomplished anything yet.”

In his 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (2) victory against 85th-ranked Ivo Minar of the Czech Republic, Roddick hit 15 aces, saved all four break points he faced and won the point on 23 of 26 trips to the net.

“I’m not going to sit here and jump up on a soapbox like I’m really good on this stuff now because I won two matches. I think that’s what you need to guard against,” Roddick said. “Today I felt pretty good, and I felt pretty in control of what I was doing.”

Federer, in contrast, offered this assessment of his performance: “I was not managing and controlling the match the way I should have.”

He has made the semifinals at a record 19 consecutive majors and hasn’t lost before the third round at any Grand Slam event since the 2003 French Open. But of Federer’s 13 Grand Slam titles - one shy of Pete Sampras’ career mark - zero have come at Roland Garros.

Federer reached the past three finals and the 2005 semifinals at the clay-court major before losing to Nadal each time.

No one in the past five years, apart from Nadal, had really made Federer seem ordinary at the French Open until Acasuso did. That he would give Federer a hard time is especially noteworthy: Acasuso advanced past the second round only once in 28 career Grand Slam tournaments.

Yet there he was, taking a 6-3 lead in the first-set tiebreaker. Federer erased the first two set points with aces before Acasuso pulled a forehand wide. Then, ahead 7-6, Acasuso shanked a shot to waste No. 4, and Federer eventually claimed that set.

Acasuso took control in the second set by breaking for a 6-5 lead. It was part of a seven-game run that also gave Acasuso a 3-0 lead in the third, and at the ensuing changeover, Federer sat down and bowed his head.

Soon enough it was 5-1 for Acasuso, who served for the third set at 5-2. He held a set point at 40-30, but Federer erased it with a big forehand, and suddenly the favorite was gaining momentum and finding his stride.

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