Wed, September 03, 2008
Sports > Tennis & Golf

Federer holds on to avoid major upset at US Open

2008-09-03 06:46:00 GMT2008-09-03 14:46:00 (Beijing Time)

Roger Federer of Switzerland hits a return shot to Igor Andreev of Russia during their match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Flushing Meadows in New York September 2, 2008.

NEW YORK - His strokes awry, his emotions laid bare for all to see, Roger Federer figured out a way to stay in the U.S. Open.

Federer found himself locked in a five-set struggle against the sort of player the world is accustomed to seeing him dismiss with ease, and it was only down the stretch that the four-time defending champion at Flushing Meadows looked the part.

Avoiding as big an upset as tennis has seen in a while, Federer came back to beat 23rd-seeded Igor Andreev of Russia 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 Tuesday night to reach the quarterfinals at the year's last Grand Slam tournament.

"Being down a set, and a tiebreak in the second set, obviously, you know, there's danger written all over that situation," Federer said. "You just hope that it's going to turn your way. It did."

When he finished the match with a forehand winner, Federer shook his fists violently and yelled, then flashed a grin toward his girlfriend and others in his guest box.

Hard to recall the last time this guy was so pleased by a mere fourth-round victory. Federer is, after all, a man who owns 12 Grand Slam titles, two shy of Pete Sampras' career mark. A man who has won 31 consecutive matches at the U.S. Open. A man who is trying to extend his record streak of 17 straight appearances in major semifinals.

And yet Federer couldn't stop smiling at the end of the 3 1/2-hour test, in part because, he explained, he found it fun to be pushed into a fifth set.

"I don't give myself the opportunity that much, you know, because I always win easily," he said. "I was just really pleased with my fighting spirit."

Novak Djokovic felt the same way about his five-setter on the same court earlier Tuesday. When Djokovic's 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 victory over No. 15 Tommy Robredo of Spain was over, the 2007 runner-up to Federer at the U.S. Open and the reigning Australian Open champion looked up in the stands and saw his mom pounding her chest repeatedly.

Djokovic responded in kind, bumping a closed fist over his heart four times, then using his right index finger to point there, point to each knee and point to his temple — looking up into the stands all the while.

"Just trying to show them, you know, how much effort I put into this match," Djokovic said.

He needed every ounce of heart, smarts and energy he could muster, and acknowledged that his quarterfinal foe — 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick, who overpowered No. 11 Fernando Gonzalez 6-2, 6-4, 6-1 at night — would be fitter.

"I've got to feel good," Roddick said, thinking ahead. "He's got about 16 injuries right now."

Djokovic was bothered at various points by his stomach, his hip, his right ankle and breathing problems.

"Somehow," the No. 3 Djokovic said, "I managed."

Because the Federer and Djokovic matches lasted so long, the women's quarterfinal between No. 2 Jelena Jankovic and No. 29 Sybille Bammer was moved from Arthur Ashe Stadium to Louis Armstrong Stadium. Jankovic won 6-1, 6-4, advancing to a semifinal against No. 5 Elena Dementieva, who beat No. 15 Patty Schnyder 6-2, 6-3.

Jankovic was happy about the court switch, she said, "because we would have to wait a long time for Federer to finish."

That surprised everyone, even if Federer's 12 losses already are more than he absorbed in any entire season from 2004-07. The standards he has set are so high that any misstep is fodder for questions about the state of his game — and his career.

Still, it's one thing to lose to Rafael Nadal, the man who walloped Federer in the French Open final and edged him in a five-set thriller of a Wimbledon final. Nadal owns five Grand Slam titles and has overtaken Federer in the rankings after the Swiss star's record 237-week stay at No. 1.

It would have been quite another thing to lose to Andreev, someone who showed up last week with a career mark of 2-3 at the U.S. Open, someone who only once made it to a major quarterfinal, someone who entered Tuesday on a seven-match losing streak against players ranked in the top five.

"For me, it was great experience," Andreev said, "and hopefully, like, in the future is going to help me."

He fell to 1-7 in five-set matches, and big-match toughness certainly was a factor at key stages.

That also could be the case when Federer plays 130th-ranked Gilles Muller in the quarterfinals Thursday. The only man from Luxembourg to play Grand Slam tennis knocked off No. 5 Nikolay Davydenko 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10) to become only the second qualifier to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

Muller noted that he's used to observing a major tournament's "second week, and especially quarterfinals, from home, I mean, on my sofa, watching on TV. Now I'm here, and I'm in it."

Asked about facing another player who doesn't carry any burden of expectations into a match against him, Federer shrugged and said: "It's been like this for 4 1/2 years. This is nothing different for me. It's just a guy who's got even less to lose."

Scurrying along the baseline to whip his go-for-it forehand and find a line, Andreev managed to make the once-invincible Federer seem human — not just during points, but between them.

Normally so calm, so collected, Federer often threw his head back in disappointment or screamed with delight. He pulled a ball out his pocket and chucked it. He cracked another ball into the net after one lost opportunity.

But in the second set, Andreev accumulated seven break points — and Federer saved them all. Any one of those could have swung the match for good. And in the crucible of the fifth set, Andreev compiled four more break points, all with Federer serving at 4-2 — and, again, Federer handled the situation better, erasing every one.

"Very important moment," Andreev acknowledged.

Another came in the second game of the fifth set, when Andreev managed to set aside two break points for Federer. On the third, though, Federer made a great return of a 119 mph serve, and Andreev eventually tried a drop shot.

Chugging forward, Federer not only got to the spinning ball, but somehow flicked a lob that curled like an upside-down "U" over the 6-foot-tall Andreev and landed right at the baseline. Andreev ran back and put his racket on the ball, but flung a backhand out. Federer pumped his fists, while Andreev smacked a ball into the stands, drawing a warning from the chair umpire.

"The moment of the night," Federer called it.

His serve was broken in the match's opening game, and then he blew a lead in the first tiebreaker. That set closed with a 13-stroke exchange that Federer ended by missing a forehand wide — already his 19th unforced error of the match, nearly twice as many as Andreev, so far.

There was more of the same, but in the end, Federer could rely on muscle memory from big matches in big settings that Andreev could not.

"Maybe for a while it was quite always the same for me — go on court, you win all the time," Federer said. "So maybe you don't take it for granted that much anymore."


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