Federer advances at Estoril; Kirilenko, Benesova in women's final

OEIRAS, Portugal -- Roger Federer sees his recent funk as a process has to go through.

Federer reached his first final of 2008 at the Estoril Open on Saturday on his least favorite surface -- clay.

"For the moment, I'm looking to see where I am," Federer said after overcoming another sluggish start to beat 104th-ranked Denis Gremelmayr of Germany 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 in the semifinals.

"I'm spending a lot of time on the surface to get used to the sliding and everything. It's been 10 months since I played on clay, so I'm already happy with this result."

The top-ranked Swiss star, who hasn't faced anyone ranked higher than No. 68 on his way to the final Sunday against No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko, said preparation is the most important thing.

"You have got to be able to handle all conditions if you want win the big titles. I'm not chasing quarterfinals of tournaments anymore -- I'm chasing wins," Federer said. "Closing a tournament with a title is always better. It would be great, especially on the clay."

Federer recruited coach Jose Higueras just for that, especially considering his previous best result this year was reaching the semifinals at the Australian Open in January.

Higueras is a former player who coached Michael Chang and Jim Courier to French Open titles -- the only Grand Slam silverware missing from the 26-year-old Federer's trophy cabinet.

Federer is off to his slowest start in eight years, reaching his first final in his fifth tournament. Last year, he won eight tournaments and reached the final in 12 of the 16 he played in.

Improvements have been noted this week and Federer plans to keep Higueras on through the Monte Carlo Masters. Whether the Spaniard continues to travel as part of Federer's entourage alongside Serevin Luethi -- Switzerland's Davis Cup captain -- is uncertain. Luethi has been providing Federer with input since he ditched coach Tony Roche last May.

"It's like a trio and it's working well," Federer said. "I have two people giving me advice all the time, which is really good. And things are going well between the three of us."

But Federer won't hide from the facts: He's struggling against players more than 100 spots below him.

"I've struggled, absolutely," the five-time Wimbledon champion said. "But I've had many tournaments where I struggled getting into the final and this one is no different."

Davydenko should offer a good test of his progress. The Russian cruised past Florent Serra of France 6-2, 6-2 to make it 11 consecutive wins and a second straight final after winning in Miami two weeks ago.

"I know the danger of Nikolay. He doesn't have to prove it with his results," said Federer, who is 11-0 against Davydenko. "I got a lot of information from this week, hopefully I can play one more good match."

Davydenko, coming off a victorious Davis Cup weekend with Russia, can point to maiden wins over Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal in Miami as proof he may be due against Federer. He also knows he pushed Federer at Roland Garros last year.

"For me, it's the first tournament of the clay court season and it's really good to be in the final," Davydenko said. "I don't know if it's much easier to beat him [on clay]."

Davydenko doesn't buy Federer's underdog tag. The Swiss player will have the crowd, the No. 1 ranking and his steadily improving play to call upon.

"It doesn't matter how he starts the season. It's important how you finish the season," Davydenko said.

Federer would probably agree.

On the women's side, Maria Kirilenko of Russia rallied to defeat Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 and reach the final.

Kirilenko will play the 132nd-ranked Iveta Benesova of the Czech Republic, who defeated Maret Ani of Estonia 6-2, 6-1.