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Federer tops Soderling, reaches semifinals

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) – On this evening, certainly, Roger Federer was back to his old self.

Back to beating Robin Soderling, and back to being a Grand Slam semifinalist – two things he used to do as a matter of course.

Treating the whipping wind and his familiar foe as only slight nuisances, 16-time Grand Slam champion Federer served his way to a convincing 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 victory over the fifth-seeded Soderling in the U.S. Open quarterfinals Wednesday night.

“I’ve been practicing my serve a whole lot, for my whole career. If I can’t serve in the wind, I’ve got a problem, you know?” said Federer, who had an 18-2 edge in aces against the big-hitting Soderling. “You could probably wake me up at 2 in the morning, or 4 in the morning, and I could hit a few serves.”

Federer mixed speed with pinpoint placement, keeping two-time French Open runner-up Soderling guessing on returns.

“I always expect Roger to play well and serve well,” Soderling said. “He served really well. He was brushing the lines a lot with his first serve, which is not easy when the weather is like this. He did that really well; much better than me.”

Federer is 13-1 against Soderling. The lone loss was in their previous match, in the French Open quarterfinals when Soderling Federer’s streak of reaching the semifinals at a record 23 major tournaments.

Federer then lost in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, prompting some to question whether his best days were behind him. But now, a month after his 29th birthday, he is back in the semifinals at a Grand Slam tournament – one that he has won five times.

Federer has won 45 of his last 46 matches in Flushing Meadows, the one exception the 2009 final against Juan Martin del Potro.

The second-seeded Federer will meet third-seeded Novak Djokovic in Saturday’s semifinals. It’s the fourth consecutive year they’ll play each other in New York; they met in the 2007 final, then the 2008-09 semifinals – and Federer went 3-0.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” 2008 Australian Open champion Djokovic said after beating 17th-seeded Gael Monfils of France 7-6 (2), 6-1, 6-2 earlier Wednesday. “I don’t want to think about those losses in the last three years, which were really, really close.”

All of the day’s matches were filled with wind that gusted at up to 30 mph, sending all sorts of debris – brown napkins; plastic bags; players’ towels – rolling on the court like tumbleweed, forcing points to be stopped and repeatedly making players catch their ball tosses.

“When it gets windy, I don’t struggle much,” Federer said. “I don’t panic.”

Other players did, earlier in the day, and about a half-dozen lets were called during top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki’s 6-2, 7-5 victory over 45th-ranked Dominika Cibulkova in the last women’s quarterfinal.

“This felt like playing in a hurricane or something,” said Wozniacki, who is 19-1 since Wimbledon and has won her past 13 matches.

In Friday’s semifinals, the 2009 U.S. Open runner-up will face 2010 Wimbledon runner-up Vera Zvonareva, a 6-3, 7-5 winner over 31st-seeded Kaia Kanepi.

A year ago in New York, during a fourth-round loss, Zvonareva wasted six match points and threw a tantrum. She bawled. She slammed her racket against her leg. She begged the chair umpire to get scissors so she could cut tape off her knees.

And Wednesday? No. 7 Zvonareva was calm and composed, letting Kanepi make mistake after mistake, 60 unforced errors in all. Zvonareva finished with only 28.

“Yeah, it was blowing in every way,” Kanepi said.

Neither afternoon match featured much drama – nor doubt about who would win. In sum, they felt akin to opening acts before Wednesday’s featured performers took the stage under the lights.

First came Wozniacki-Cibulkova, with Donald Trump in attendance, his hair getting mussed by the wind.

“He called my agent and asked if there was going to be a space in my box,” said Wozniacki, who made only 18 unforced errors, 25 fewer than Cibulkova. “I said, ‘Of course, there’s always a place for Mr. Trump.”‘

Trump stuck around for the main event: Federer vs. Soderling, a matchup made so much more intriguing by what happened the last time they squared off. That was on a dreary, rainy day in Paris, and the 6-foot-4 Soderling – he’s 3 inches taller than Federer – used his strong forehand and serve to great effect, driving winners through the thick weather and pounding 14 aces.

On Wednesday, in contrast, Soderling didn’t hit his first ace of the evening until the 143rd point of the match, nearly 1 1/2 hours in, earning a smattering of sarcastic cheers from some fans in the sellout crowd of 23,718. By that time, Federer already had 15 aces, including three in a row in one game.

The wind affected shots, pushing behind a player’s back at one end of the court, and blowing into his face at the other. How big a deal was it? Instead of opting to serve when he won the prematch coin toss, Federer selected which side of the court he wanted to start on, choosing to have the wind behind him for the first game.

“He can play really well in the wind,” Soderling said. “He moves well. He’s always in the right place.”

Soderling chose to serve first, against the wind, and when they switched sides after that game, he earned three break points. But Federer saved each of them, the last with an ace at 120 mph, and held to 1-all. Soderling appeared to get rattled in that game on the first break point, when Federer challenged a call and got it overturned on replay review. Soderling wanted the point replayed, but the chair umpire awarded the point to Federer. Soderling argued, to no avail.

Soderling got a fourth break chance in the sixth game, but let that slide by pushing a forehand long. From there, Federer won the next 15 consecutive points on his serve, including 10 in a row in which Soderling didn’t even manage to put the ball in play with a return.

At 3-all, 30-15, Soderling blinked first. He missed a backhand, then a forehand, giving Federer his first break opportunity. And Federer made good with a fantastic drop shot that simply died on the court, ending a 12-stroke point and making it 4-3.

After an early trade of service breaks in the second set, Soderling again had a lapse at 2-all. Ahead 40-love on his serve, he badly missed what should have been an easy overhead, putting it in the net. He lost the next five points to get broken – and was never again in that set.

Soderling appeared to get himself back into the match by breaking for a 5-3 lead in the third set when Federer sailed an inside-out forehand wide on a 13-stroke exchange. The intrigue there lasted for all of a minute or so, because Federer broke right back to 5-4, helped by three consecutive errant forehands by Soderling.

At 5-all, Federer used the wind in his favor, taking a strong forehand approach shot by Soderling and hitting a hard, slice backhand lob. The shot curled over Soderling and floated down near the baseline. Soderling got there, but his forehand went long.

That helped Federer get two more break points, and he converted the second when Soderling yanked a backhand wide.

All that was left for Federer to do was serve out the victory. He did. And he finished, appropriately, with a pair of aces.

“I was able to pull away,” Federer said, “and close it out quickly.”