Real Roger Federer eventually returns

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NEW YORK -- Roger Federer is notoriously fussy, a perfectionist who likes things just so.

Put him in the vacuum of an indoor court in Europe, against anyone ranked outside the top 20, and the Swiss champion is going to win virtually every time. And, hovering around the court, barely break a sweat.

But Thursday night, playing a US Open quarterfinal match in yawning Arthur Ashe Stadium, Federer -- -- despite entering with a 27-1 record here in evening matches -- looked agitated and edgy. The No. 2 seed, usually a model of decorum, even got into it a few times with chair umpire Carlos Ramos.

The gusting winds were wrecking havoc with Federer's usually formidable forehand, and Gael Monfils, the sometimes-wacky Frenchman, was playing way out of character -- showing restraint, even caution at times, playing with a fat margin. Even after he rolled his right ankle early in the second set, Monfils' footwork was nearly flawless. For better than two sets, his headwork was, well, oddly excellent.

And for that same period, Federer, always exceedingly proud, failed to reign in his big, stylish game -- and it very nearly cost him. But gradually, reality returned; the five-time US Open champion became more Federer-like, while Monfils began to look like the player most people thought he was.

Federer needed to save two match points, but he won the match 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2. It felt far longer than the official time of 3 hours, 20 minutes.

What was he thinking in the fourth set, facing those match points?

"I thought, 'This is it, the last point,' " Federer said in his on-court interview. " 'Man, go down fighting, don't miss any easy shots. Just let him have it.'

"Served well, somehow turned it around. Felt great in the fifth [set]."

And so, Federer came back from two sets down for the eighth time in his career. The only time he did it here? As a 19-year-old, some 14 years ago in the first round when Peter Wessels retired. It was his first US Open match ever. And, now, 80 matches later, he's done it again.

Federer, who had 26 unforced errors in the first two sets, produced only 18 in the final three.

Monfils, the No. 20 seed, was playing his second major quarterfinal in the same season for the first time in his 11th year as a professional. He was trying to become first player ranked outside No. 20 (he's 24th) to reach the final four here since No. 54 Mikhail Youzhny eight years ago.

Before the match, the general consensus was that it would be Federer playing Marin Cilic in Saturday's semifinals. The possibility of a record 18th Grand Slam singles title seemed very tangible indeed.

One of the beauties of Federer is his ability, like a Swiss chronometer, to never miss a beat. He almost always beats the guys he's supposed to beat. Federer was 50-2 at the US Open when playing someone ranked outside the top 20. One of those came last year, when he fell in the fourth round at the US Open to Tommy Robredo. This time, he just missed going out twice in a row.

Federer has made a conscious effort at the age of 33 to come to the net more often to cut down the angles and rely more heavily on his considerable volleying skills. Through the four rounds, he averaged 54 approaches, six more per match than last year. Against Monfils, he came forward 74 times -- and won 53 of those points.

Monfils, showing impeccable concentration, broke Federer in the fifth game of the opening set. Federer's too-flat forehand, riding the breeze, sailed wide. He made it stand up and, serving for the set, served one at 111 mph wide and Federer's backhand answer was wide.

There was no reason for fear in Fed Camp, for he had dropped the first set to Marcel Granollers in the third round -- and came back to win 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.

But then it happened again. Monfils broke him in the first game of the second set and, again, it stuck. A backhand into the net gave Monfils a two-set lead only 78 minutes into the contest.

Federer broke Monfils at the top of the third frame and, showing true emotion for the first time, held up a clenched fist at his box containing coach Stefan Edberg. Monfils came back with a break of his own with Federer serving at 2-1, then was broken right back. Suddenly, the crowd was rallying around Federer.

They roared when Federer won the third set with a sweet forehand winner. Monfils, who is coachless, began talking steadily to himself in French. Nevertheless, he played steady ball and found himself up a break with Federer serving at 4-5. He won three of four points, but facing two match points, Federer came up with a big, unmanageable serve followed by a forehand winner. After Monfils missed a forehand long, Federer banged another hard sere down the middle and skipped a little when Monfils framed it.

Monfils followed that up with four missed serves in a row -- his eighth and ninth double faults of the match and fourth and fifth of the set -- to give Federer the break he needed. He held comfortably and the match was even.

Afterward, Federer sounded almost giddy talking on court. Speaking quickly, he assessed Cilic, his semifinal opponent.

"Marin's played some great tennis in New York over the years," Federer said. "I'm looking forward to playing Marin. We had a tough, tough match in Toronto."

Federer needed six match points to advance past Cilic to the quarterfinals last month, winning 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 6-4.

He'll have to channel the 19-year-old Federer again for a chance at that record 18th Grand Slam title. So far, anyway, he seems up to it.

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