Federer magnificent amid the mayhem
NEW YORK -- Roger Federer hit a decent lob over the head of Robin Soderling, and it looked like it hit a wall. The ball stopped, bounced and moved another foot closer to net before Soderling, now easily in position, rifled a forehand that Federer couldn't keep in the court.
On consecutive points, two of the world's best players shanked shots off their frames. The flag above Arthur Ashe Stadium was flat-out stiff for most of their quarterfinal match, with the wind blowing consistently between 18 and 20 miles per hour and gusting close to 30.
Blustery? Try brutal.
Tennis is difficult enough at this level when conditions are perfect, but this week at the National Tennis Center has been a trial for these elite players. The physically (and mentally) nimble players, the problem-solvers, who can adjust to the swift changes in trajectory and direction are the ones who advance.
On Wednesday night, Federer -- perhaps the greatest player in tennis history -- was magnificent amid the mayhem. The No. 2 seed mastered the wind and Soderling, too, winning 6-4, 6-4 7-5, to advance to a semifinal match against No. 3 Novak Djokovic.
It was over in four minutes less than two hours.
"The wind is blowing for everybody," Federer told the crowd afterward. "Thanks for sticking around."
Although Soderling never shortened in his long service toss, Federer's more efficient offering was nearly flawless. He served 18 aces and 48 percent of his serves (43 of 89) were unreturnable.
"If I can't serve in the wind, I've got a problem," Federer said. "You can wake me up at 2 or 4 in the morning, and I can hit serves."
This was a big step for the five-time U.S. Open champion, because the past two times he was in this spot -- at Roland Garros and at Wimbledon -- he lost his quarterfinal matches, to Soderling and Tomas Berdych, respectively. That ended a staggering streak of 23 consecutive major semifinals, and in some people's minds, signaled an end to his run of entitlement.
Soderling had lost their first 12 encounters, but the win in Paris seemed to bring a welcome cloud of calm to his game, and with it, confidence. But as he struggled with his exceptionally high ball toss on practice Court No. 5 more than three hours before the game, calm was not the word that came to mind.
The 26-year-old Swede came out swinging, though. He fought for four break points through the first six games, but Federer saved them all. When Federer finally held the hammer, he converted his first breaker, carving an exquisite drop shot into the wind that almost didn't bounce.
Serving for the first set -- and, under the heavy circumstances, effectively the match -- Federer was working from the west end of the stadium, into the wind. All he did was hit four unreturnable serves, at 125, 123, 124 and 117 mph.
Similarly, the second set went to Federer as Soderling sagged visibly. In the third set, for the first time, Soderling began to rein in his big game and stopped blasting for the lines. It earned him a break of serve, at 5-3, but Federer broke him back.
Federer went to work with Soderling serving at 5-all. The pivotal point was a hard, backhand slice-lob that Soderling couldn't track down. A looping backhand from Soderling drifted wide, and Federer found himself serving for the match.
He fired two more aces, and Soderling was done.
Federer converted five of the six break points that came his way; Soderling was only 2-for-6.
Federer is now a spot-on 16-0 record in night matches on Arthur Ashe, a court he has learned to love. He has lost one set in his past nine matches, needing one set above the minimum to stop Mardy Fish in the finals at Cincinnati.
At the age of 29, most of Federer's victories have a piece of history attached. He's looking for an Open era record of six U.S. Open titles, something that eluded him last year when Juan Martin del Potro beat him in the final. A victory over Djokovic in Saturday's semifinal would place him in his seventh straight championship final.
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The odds are with him. Federer has beaten Djokovic here the past three years, in the 2007 final and the past two semifinals, winning nine of 10 sets.
"Here we go again," Federer said. "He's been playing well after that hiccup [five-setter] in the first round. It's going to be a tough one."
Nothing would give Federer more pleasure than to meet No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal in the final here -- something that has never happened. Not only would it add to his record total of 16 majors, it would prevent Rafa, perhaps the biggest threat to his legacy, from creeping ever closer.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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