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Fed deficit? Not in confidence

NEW YORK -- It was just past 1 a.m. Tuesday, and the rest of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was close to deserted when Roger Federer finished breezing into the U.S. Open quarterfinals with his 6-1, 6-2, 6-0 romp past Juan Monaco that began late Monday night.

And just to make sure that the message implicit in his romp wasn't lost, Federer seemed to pull a trick out of the old Invincible Years playbook: He started talking like a front-runner who thought the rest of the field might be listening.

Maybe it's just muscle memory that made Federer do it, a hard-to-shake habit left over from all those seasons when he rarely lost any matches, let alone slogged through a year like this one in which he's still hunting and pecking around for his first Grand Slam title of 2011. But there Federer was, although the clock was striking 1:30 a.m., rambling on to reporters at his postmatch news conference about how absolutely great he's playing.

It was as though Federer didn't have anywhere to be or a serious care in the world -- this although Federer already knew that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has beaten him twice this summer, including in the quarterfinal round at Wimbledon, lay just ahead Wednesday.

Federer couldn't stop talking about how terrific he's playing been here in New York.

If he does say so himself.

"I played really well. Crisp. Nice," Federer said. "Today I think I just returned too well. Then on the serve I was too confident. From the baseline I had the upper hand the whole time. In the three main areas of the game I was superior."

So how does he feel about his chance to avenge his losses to Tsonga?

"It's sure something I'm looking forward to," Federer said.

Really?

"Look, I live for the big matches, live for playing a guy who is explosive, has got some firepower," Federer went on.

If you said all that rumbling sounds like Federer the Worldbeater circa 2005 -- and not the Federer who admitted to suffering crises of confidence after Rafael Nadal overtook him for No. 1 and Novak Djokovic went slingshotting by him in the past year -- you'd be right.

So if Roger Federer is playing like the Roger Federer of old and is talking like the Roger Federer of yesteryear, the natural impulse would be to say the up-and-down Tsonga has next to no chance to beat him for the third straight time, let alone the second consecutive Grand Slam match they've played, right?

Except Federer is 30 years old now. And he loses more often to merely good players like Tsonga, not just Djokovic and Nadal, more than he did before. Federer has only one title in 2011, period, which throws even more intrigue into the task still ahead of him this week in New York.

If he doesn't win this Open, it would be the first time since 2002 that Federer finished a calendar year without a Grand Slam title.

And Tsonga is responsible for already putting another unwanted asterisk into Federer's major tournament bio: At Wimbledon, Tsonga was the first man to rally and beat Federer at a Grand Slam after Federer had taken a 2-0 set lead.

Federer insists that loss didn't stay with him any more than any other loss.

But Tsonga believes otherwise.

"Now Roger knows I can beat him," Tsonga said Monday.

Which could be a good thing and bad thing, Tsonga admitted. Because perhaps now he's made Federer angry.

"Even if I won two times," Tsonga said, "I know the third time will be more difficult. ... He will do everything to win this time."

Tsonga, a 26-year-old Frenchman, has been entertaining this summer. He's talked a lot about how his improved play may have something to do with getting fitter with Andre Agassi's old trainer, Gil Reyes, and something to do with "not thinking" so much during his matches. And he may be on to something.

He followed up his five-set win over Federer with another victory over him a few weeks later in Montreal. And Tsonga says he'll follow the same game plan here that he used in the other two wins.

"The key for me is just play like I did the other time -- I mean, I have to be really aggressive; I have to be in the court before him," Tsonga said.

Djokovic is likely to await the Federer-Tsonga winner. It's funny to think that Federer might actually feel better about facing the top-ranked Djokovic at this point -- he was terrific while beating Djokovic at the French Open -- than finding himself in another grinding five-setter against someone shouldering less pressure, like Tsonga.

Federer should win this match. But Tsonga might. The combination of the personal Grand Slam history that Federer is playing to preserve and the recent history between him and Tsonga should add spice to the match.

When Tsonga beat him at Wimbledon, Federer had to bat down uncomfortable questions about whether the loss marked the end of an era there -- as in his.

The last thing Federer said before heading out the door in the wee hours Tuesday was that he likes his chances here at the Open.

A lot.

"In all the Grand Slams this year, I've played really well," Federer said. And he threw out another handful of compliments for himself.

Federer is feeling like the old Federer, all right. On Wednesday we'll see whether that's still good enough to win a Slam. Especially if the new Tsonga shows up.