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French allegiance squarely with Federer

6/4/2009 - Tennis

PARIS -- For all the nitpicking and the barrage of almost daily drive-by examinations of the perilous state of his mind, Roger Federer is nothing if not consistent.

On Wednesday, Federer walked onto Court Philippe Chatrier and, with nearly 15,000 spectators as witnesses, thoroughly destroyed their favorite son, native Parisian Gael Monfils.

The score was 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-4, and when it was over Federer was into another Grand Slam semifinal, his 20th in a row.

Yes, while No.1 seed Rafael Nadal, No. 3 Andy Murray and No. 4 Novak Djokovic are all at home watching on television, Federer is still trudging through the soft red dirt at Roland Garros with a modest 10-match winning streak on clay.

He now plays Juan Martin Del Potro -- a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 winner over Tommy Robredo -- for a chance to win the first French Open of his career, one that would match Pete Sampras' all-time record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles.

France, now that its players have fallen out of the draw, has fully embraced Federer as this unlikely feel-good scenario continues to unfold.

"I feel it since a few years now, to be honest with you, but this year even more extreme," Federer said. "When I walk on the streets or drive in the transportation or I go for dinner, everybody is like, 'This is your year. You've got to do it.'

"They're screaming from their scooters and out of the car. They even get out at the red lights and want me to sign an autograph or take a picture. It's quite incredible this last couple of weeks."

Federer admitted afterward that he was nervous before the match, "because, you know, the whole stories of Nadal losing, Murray losing, Djokovic losing, maybe opening up the draw a little bit.

"Obviously they also play with my mind, even though it doesn't affect me yet. Now it does, because I'm not playing Djokovic but I'm playing Del Potro."

A year ago Monfils, a former French Open junior champion, stretched Federer to four sets in a semifinal match. But when the opportunity to win a set presented itself, Federer denied him.

Monfils had a set point in the first-set tiebreaker, leading 6-5 with Federer serving, but Federer followed a second serve to net and watched Monfils' backhand go wide. Equipped with his own set point, Federer came forward again and sent a forehand volley into the suddenly open court.

When Federer broke Monfils' serve to open the second set, Federer enthusiasts breathed a little easier.

Despite all the upsets, this hasn't been an easy tournament for the 27-year-old Swiss player. He saved four points in the opening set of his second-round match with Jose Acasuso, then lost the second and saved another set point in the third, while coming back from a 5-1 deficit. Federer also dropped the first set to Paul-Henri Mathieu in the third round and lost the first two sets to Tommy Haas in the fourth round before digging out.

For someone who stands 6-foot-6, Del Potro has moved through the draw without drawing much attention to himself. He has lost only one set in 16 tries, and for a guy who insists he hates playing on clay, he's getting by.

He was ranked No. 68 this time a year ago and now, at the age of 20, he'll be playing in the first semifinal of his young career.

For Robredo, the numbers aren't so good. He's now 0-5 in Grand Slam quarterfinals and has won just two of his past 17 matches against top-10 players.

After his match, Federer was asked to reflect on his reaching 20 major semifinals in a row.

"It's the 'in a row' that seems incredible to me," he said. "Twenty semifinals is incredible, but twenty semifinals in a row? It's even more incredible, even to me. Sometimes I lose sight of it because of all the tournaments and matches I play all along the year.

"You lose sights of these records, but that's probably the one I'm most proud of. I still hold it. So yes, that's big. That's huge."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.