- Whit Sheppard
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PARIS -- If he is to emerge victorious at the finish line of the 15-day endurance contest otherwise known as the French Open, Roger Federer will have himself to thank for limiting his time on the job in the lead-up to Sunday's final.
You can do that when you're self-employed and immensely talented -- and the 24-year-old Swiss is both.
Coming into his quarterfinal match Tuesday with Croatia's Mario Ancic, the No. 12 seed, the Swiss had averaged a little more than two hours on-court in his four previous matches, dropping only one set along the way. Today, he stayed largely on-plan, spending two hours, 17 minutes on Court Central to dispatch Ancic, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 and advance to a semifinal match-up with third-seeded David Nalbandian of Argentina.
"It's [playing short matches] definitely going to help because [it] can sometimes cost you a tournament if you play a very tough [match], then you have to shorten the points and change your tactics because of fatigue," Federer said. "That's the worst.
"I feel like I can back up tough matches now. I got two days [off] now, so I guess fitness won't play a factor any more."
By contrast, Federer's nemesis Rafael Nadal has spent four more hours sliding and stomping his way around the terre battue at Roland Garros in the first four rounds, including a third-round slugfest against Paul-Henri Mathieu that took 4 hours, 53 minutes.
That difference just might end up being an essential ingredient in Federer's quest for the lone Grand Slam title he's yet to win, his fourth consecutive, and his eighth in the last 12 played. It might also enable him to break Nadal's stranglehold on their burgeoning rivalry, which now stands at 5-1 in the Spaniard's favor.
With his win today, Federer captured his 26th consecutive victory in Grand Slam play in the Open era, shrugging off Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors to move alone into second place all-time behind Rod Laver's 29 straight wins.
After Federer took a 58-minute first set that featured lengthy baseline rallies, Ancic broke the Swiss' serve in the opening game of the second set and was a point away from going up two breaks and 3-0 when he held three more break points with Federer serving at 0-2, 0-40.
How Federer handles those moments is what separates him from all of his peers, save for Nadal.
"It was really the first break that got me angry because I missed the easiest overhead ever. In the end, it just cost me a break," Federer said. "I really came back strong [in the third game], saved all those breakpoints, and played really well towards the end of the second [set]. From then on I was really in control."
A couple of big serves and a forehand winner got him back to deuce and he closed out the third game without further duress. He went on to break Ancic in both the sixth and the eighth games and closed out the second set easily.
Federer has a unique way of confounding his opponents. With Ancic leading 3-2 in the third and final set, the 22-year-old Croatian called for the trainer. Ancic was suffering from dizziness. Afterward, he attributed it to a simple depletion of energy over the past 10 days, but at the time it seemed he might have been feeling overwhelmed by his opponent's superior shot-making.
Federer now faces a single obstacle, in the form of Nalbandian, in his attempt to get to Sunday's final, the one he's been pointing to for the entirety of the European spring clay-court season. Federer beat Nalbandian three weeks ago on clay in Rome in a three-set semifinal settled by a tiebreaker, but the Argentine holds a 6-5 career advantage and plays the world No. 1 as well as anyone besides Nadal.
If Federer and Nadal both win through to play Sunday, the tennis world will get the final it's been pining for, with history on the line: Nadal's record clay-court winning streak and perfect record at Roland Garros; Federer's quest for his fourth consecutive major win; and Federer's coming within Wimbledon and U.S. Open wins of the calendar-year Grand Slam, last accomplished by Laver in 1969.
"Look, I think we all would love to see me playing Rafa in the finals, except two other players," said Federer. "They stand in our way."
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Roger Federer seems to be getting stronger as the French Open goes on. Whit Sheppard writes Federer's ability to stay off the court could make the difference in him winning his first French Open title.