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Shaky Roger Federer good enough

NEW YORK -- Roger Federer's lob, if you could call it that, went up awkwardly and it appeared the wind would push it long.

Marin Cilic, who is only 22 but has been touted as a possible Grand Slam champion for years, tried to hit it. Swinging just a little too quickly, he slammed the ball -- into the net. The crowd sighed; break point squandered.

"That, right there, is the difference between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic," said Matt Wilansky, ESPN.com's sometimes astute tennis editor.

Sure enough, Federer ramped up his serve and two missed returns later, he held. And although he lost the set -- his first ever to Cilic -- he managed to come through the match somewhat intact, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. His serve and his backhand were a little shaky, but this is what you expect of a 16-time Grand Slam champion. Cilic, for the record, has none.

"Coming in, I knew it was going to be tricky," Federer said, "and I'm happy that I was able to counter his pace and his good play. In the third set sort of in the beginning, I thought that was a key moment because he had momentum on his side. I was not returning and serving exactly the way I wanted, but I was able to turn it around and finished strong in the set. Then in the fourth things were a bit easier.

"Tough match from start to finish, really, because also the first set could have gone differently. I know that."

These are interesting times for Federer.

He is not quite the player he was when he won three majors in a single season -- three different times, 2004, 2006-07. The Swiss champion has won a Grand Slam singles title every year since breaking through in 2003 at Wimbledon. So far in 2011, Federer has zero on the board. Now 30, he's won only one tournament this year, Doha in January. It's his lowest title total at this late point in the season in a decade.

His draw, however, seems kind. Now that Cilic is gone, there are no seeded players in his path to the quarterfinals. There he would probably meet either Mardy Fish or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Novak Djokovic, presumably, would be lurking in the semifinals -- a tasty matchup all around. Djokovic beat Federer here in last year's semifinals, but Federer took him out in this year's semifinals at Roland Garros.

2. Man in tights: Long after he had escaped Friday's five-set match with Robin Haase, Andy Murray emerged in the players' garden dressed in a sleek, black body suit -- appropriate fashion for his upcoming ice bath at his midtown hotel. He walked over to three waiting friends and shrugged.

Although the big three have been steaming through the field so far, No. 4 Murray struggled in his second-round match, falling into a two-set hole. At one point -- in an exchange overheard by Tennis.com's Jon Levey -- Murray told a fan, "I'm trying my nuts off, man. I just feel awful."

Still, Murray actually managed a laugh with the score 4-all when a shot off the netcord from Haase dropped just wide.

"The thing was, that's when I felt the calmest, in the fifth set," Murray said. "Even when he started coming back I wasn't panicking. I just stayed focused and managed to turn it around."

Murray knows that standard won't work against Feliciano Lopez.

"I'm going to need to play better on Sunday," Murray said, "or I'll be going home."

3. The French Open West: It is not uncommon for Rafael Nadal and Spain to be at the top of the tennis heap. There were 10 Spanish players ranked in the ATP World Tour's year-end top 50 -- more than any other country. Spain won its most titles ever, 20, by 11 players.

Even here at the U.S. Open, where the surface is speedier than the red clay of Roland Garros, Spain rules. No fewer than six Spanish players reached the third round, more than any other country.

Nadal has a challenging match Sunday versus David Nalbandian. The two have played four times, splitting the matches; that .500 record is something only one other active player (not Federer and Djokovic) can claim. Nikolay Davydenko is 6-4 versus Rafa.

Nalbandian won the first two encounters, in 2007, but Nadal won the past two -- albeit in three sets -- most recently a year ago in Miami.

4. Federer breaks it down: Rafa's recent autobiography has provided much fodder for the media here at the U.S. Open. Saturday, Federer was asked about Rafa's contention that Federer's serve and forehand are better than his.

"Our head-to-heads speak for themselves when clay comes around, even though I've beaten him twice there," Federer said, thoughtfully. "I think this is where his strength comes into play the most with his movement on clay and instinct better than anyone on that surface, for instance. And I think his margins he gives himself each shot are better than anyone's. I play very flat. I have more risk in my game, but at least I feel the match is usually in my control, where Rafa maybe doesn't always feel that way.

"He has to dig extremely deep sometimes. But when he's on a roll, he's almost unstoppable, as well. I think he's an incredible player. He's improved a lot over the years. He'll keep on improving and be one of the greats."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.