- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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PARIS -- These days, there's nothing Roger Federer enjoys more than being Roger Federer. But, clearly, the past two years without a Grand Slam singles title have been frustrating.
In Tuesday's quarterfinal against Juan Martin del Potro, there was a moment when you got a sense of the depth of his suffering.
Federer was serving to level their second-set tiebreaker at 5 when del Potro hit another massive forehand. The Swiss tried to run it down, but his hasty forehand swipe found the net. Federer stopped, eyes blazing, and bellowed in the general direction of his player's box. He went on to lose the breaker, and the dispirited buzz in the crowd at Court Suzanne Lenglen suggested that most of those in attendance -- perhaps even Federer himself -- were convinced he was a dead man.
Once, Federer was a flawless closer. For years, when he won the first two sets of a Grand Slam match, he never lost. He was 178-0 in these matches -- until last year. Federer surrendered a two-set lead to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Then it happened again against Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open.
On Tuesday, Federer reversed that troubling trend and, for a day at least, the aging process. Under a leaden sky that spit out a drizzle through the end of the match, Federer rallied to beat del Potro 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-0, 6-3.
Meanwhile, in the other quarterfinal over at Court Philippe Chatrier, the world No. 1 was in desperate trouble. By the deep, stadium-rattling roars, you knew his opponent was a Frenchman. At one spectacular juncture, Tsonga held a match point against Djokovic just as Federer produced his first against del Potro.
Tsonga, buoyed by some 15,000 supporters, fell short of his upset dream. Djokovic -- playing like a man who has won the past three Grand Slam singles titles -- defeated Tsonga 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-1 to set up a Federer-Djokovic semifinal that hadn't seemed possible a few hours earlier.
The match consumed 4 hours, 19 minutes -- and Tsonga failed to cash any of his four match points.
Meanwhile, it was only the sixth time in a Grand Slam and seventh overall that Federer was forced to come back from two sets down. Afterward, Federer was asked about his brief tantrum.
"I mean, look, I was pushing hard and I was trying to -- should have maybe won that second set earlier," Federer said. "I'm stuck in a breaker. Juan Martin is playing well, hitting hard; I'm in defense.
"Obviously, I was emotional, and I was, you know, sometimes upset. Sometimes just trying to push myself on. Push harder and try harder and move faster, all those things, because I knew it could be crucial to the match."
For two sets, Federer looked a half-step slow and, frankly, overpowered by del Potro. But in the third, the dynamic changed drastically.
Once he lost the first two sets, Federer said, he just tried to extend the match as long as possible.
"Maybe his knee was [bothering him], I don't know," Federer said. "But doesn't matter how bad that knee is, maybe he can just sit on it and just say, 'OK, here. Take the two next sets. I will wait here half hour, 45 minutes, and then I'll come back in the fifth set and I will destroy you.'
"I knew it was going to be a tricky match, I knew that margins were not on my side anymore. That's where I just tried to keep playing tough, make him understand how far he still had to go, as well, because I had a very long way.
"I was able to do all of those things, and I was very happy the way I played, starting in the third set."
Del Potro has said in news conferences that he tries not to think about his aching, heavily taped left knee. But as Federer raced away with the third and fourth sets -- losing only two games -- del Potro started moving more gingerly. In the fifth, he began to limp.
Afterward, del Potro refused to blame his knee for the loss.
"I serve really bad in the fourth set," he said. "And if I serve bad against Federer or the top guys, you don't have too many chances to win points. Then in the fifth set, he broke me very early to take the advantage."
Del Potro rallied gamely at the front end of the fifth set. He was on serve at 1-2 when Federer knocked the decisive forehand winner down the line.
"He was playing with more confidence the fifth set than me," del Potro said. "When he had the chance to close the match, he made it."
In his brief history, though, the 23-year-old Argentine has shown an affinity for these difficult grand occasions against Federer.
In 2009 here at Roland Garros, del Potro pushed Federer to five sets before losing. Later that year, he ended Federer's 40-match winning streak at the U.S. Open for the first -- and only -- major win of his career.
The laws of tennis are roughly aligned with the laws of physics: What goes up must necessarily return to Earth. It's not a question of if, but when.
Not quite ageless at 30 but still superbly effective, Federer has done his best to fight the inevitable advance of entropy.
He has been as consistently on time and efficient as the trains that stream out of Paris' Gare du Nord, the busiest railway station in Europe. He, more than anyone else, embodies the stranglehold that the top players have on the rest of men's tennis. Federer has been among the ATP World Tour's top three players for a decade. Meanwhile, the top six seeds reached the quarterfinals here at the French Open, marking only the third time in the 44 years of the Open era that has happened.
Federer's recent success has paled only in comparison to ... his earlier, unprecedented self.
The lean Swiss champion reached 22 of 27 Grand Slam finals while he won his record 16 major titles. Then there was his wondrous run of 23 consecutive semifinals -- perhaps the least breakable of his many standards. The streak currently in play is more modest, more appropriate to his undeniably declining level. Federer has reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam 32 times in a row. For context, consider that only five men have played all 32 of those majors: Feliciano Lopez, David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, Tomas Berdych and Albert Montanes.
All of this statistical mayhem sounds lovely enough, but to Federer, the only numbers that matter are 0-for-8 in majors. He's come admirably close -- reaching the French Open final here a year ago -- but Federer hasn't won a major since the 2010 Australian Open.
Now, the only thing between him and the final is the No. 1 player in the world. Djokovic won their last encounter a few weeks ago in Rome.
"Obviously it helps to win one like he did in Rome, I would think," Federer said. "But then again, this is the best situation. It's the best of five. You used to play many more. Now all of a sudden you can go six months and not play almost any five-setters, and even three years.
"So it's a different approach, and I think we're both aware of that. We're looking forward to it. Give us more time to find our range, and once we find our range, it's going to be tough for the opponent."