Hanna shuts down U.S. Open

  • Associated Press
  • Saturday, September 6, 2008 3:30pm
  • SportsSports

NEW YORK — As the losses piled up and titles escaped him, Roger Federer insisted he felt fine, he wasn’t washed up and his game would come around.

Oh, did Federer look good against Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals.

Buoyed by a stellar start and a fantastic finish in a rematch of last year’s final, Federer beat Djokovic 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 Saturday to move within one victory of a fifth consecutive U.S. Open championship and 13th Grand Slam title overall.

“One more match is all I need,” he said.

He wasn’t going to go to bed knowing the name of his next opponent. Tropical Storm Hanna hit the New York area in the afternoon, dumping enough rain to force the suspension of the semifinal between No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 6 Andy Murray in the third set. That match will resume Sunday afternoon with Murray ahead 6-2, 7-6 (5), 2-3, and the men’s final was delayed a day until Monday for the first time since 1987.

The weather also forced the postponement of the women’s championship match between Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic, originally scheduled for Saturday night. Instead, that will be played Sunday night.

Federer was asked about his preferred foe for the final. A reasonable question, given that Nadal routed him in the French Open final, edged him 9-7 in the fifth set of the Wimbledon final and supplanted him atop the rankings last month after Federer’s record 237-week stay at No. 1.

“Who do I prefer? I prefer the trophy, that’s what I prefer,” Federer said, drawing a roar of approval from the fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

And then came an answer that might surprise some.

“I guess I’ve got to say Rafa,” Federer continued, “because we’ve had such great battles over the years. Wimbledon was unbelievable, so I hope we can do it again here.”

Federer has won 33 straight matches at Flushing Meadows and reached 13 of the past 14 Grand Slam finals.

The one gap in that span was the Australian Open in January, when Djokovic upset Federer in the semifinals en route to the title. Perhaps that gave Federer extra motivation Saturday.

Even Federer sensed the magic returning.

“I definitely had moments during today where I thought, ‘This is how I would like to play every time,”’ said Federer, who had 20 aces and only one double-fault despite swirling wind. “It was a very nice feeling to get that feeling back.”

The fans cheered for both the No. 2 Federer, from Switzerland, and the No. 3 Djokovic, from Serbia, but there was more support for the reigning champion.

“A feel a little bit New Yorker right now,” Federer said. “I definitely appreciate the efforts from the fans, supporting me and pushing me forward.”

Maybe that’s because they remembered what happened Thursday night. After beating Andy Roddick, Djokovic drew merciless boos by lashing out at the American, taking him to task for making light of the Serb’s series of medical issues earlier in the week.

“It’s been a very exhausting tournament, mentally and physically, for me,” said Djokovic, who didn’t want to discuss what happened the other night.

Maybe the fans simply figured Federer needed an extra push during what, by his so-special standards, has been a sub-par season.

He has 12 losses, more than in any entire year from 2004-07.

He has only two titles, from minor events, his lowest total entering a U.S. Open since 2002.

He faces the possibility of going through an entire year without a Grand Slam title for the first time since 2002. Remember, he won three of the four major championships in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

There was this hanging in the balance, too: Had Djokovic won Saturday and gone on to take the title, he would have surpassed Federer in the rankings, dropping the longtime No. 1 all the way to No. 3.

“This was a big match,” said Federer, who is chasing Pete Sampras’ record of 14 career major championships. “I knew it from when I saw the draw.”

He began flawlessly. Federer compiled seven winners and no unforced errors as he raced to a 4-1 lead. And race he did, wasting not a second between points, quickly stepping up to the baseline when it was his turn to serve.

It was as though Federer knew that those gray clouds could stop things at any moment and he wanted to get as far ahead as fast as possible.

Looking more confident and supremely competent than he had all tournament, Federer smacked a 130 mph serve to set up a forehand winner and end the first set. By then, Federer had won 20 of 24 points on his serve and accumulated 13 winners and three unforced errors.

What about Djokovic?

His game and his demeanor were far duller than usual.

“It was important stay grounded,” Federer said. “I knew the tough times were going to arrive.”

The real Djokovic showed up in the second set, striking shots more crisply, pressuring Federer more consistently. When Federer served while trailing 6-5, Djokovic earned three set points, three chances to pull even.

On the first, Djokovic sailed a forehand long. On the second, Federer wrong-footed Djokovic with a cross-court forehand winner.

A year ago in the U.S. Open final, Djokovic led 6-5 in each of the opening two sets. In the first, he held five set points. In the second, he held two. He capitalized on zero, prompting this postmatch one-liner: “My next book is going to be called, ‘Seven Set Points.”’

But Djokovic is no longer as inexperienced, nor Federer as invincible. This time, Djokovic seized his third set point, returning a 121 mph serve and watching as Federer stepped up for what should have been an easy shot and rushed a forehand long.

All tied.

The third set progressed steadily, neither man asserting himself, until Djokovic served at 5-5, 30-all. As he went into his service motion there, a spectator called out, eliciting a glare and words of disgust from Djokovic.

Looking rattled, Djokovic put a forehand into the net, setting up break point. When Djokovic began the next point with a fault, someone yelled, “Go, Roger!” When a cross-court backhand forced a long volley from Djokovic, Federer had the break, a 6-5 lead — and a rousing chorus of support from the stands.

“Roger is still there, you know. And even though people are talking about him not playing so well this year, he’s still very consistent,” Djokovic said. “That’s his strength, you know. Whenever he needs to play well, he plays his best.”

And so it was that the roar grew even louder a game later, when Djokovic hit a smash that would have ended the point against nearly anyone. Next to the blue wall behind a baseline, Federer stretched and jumped and carved a winner that seemed to stun Djokovic. Federer raised a fist imperiously, and five points later he danced in delight, the fourth set and momentum his.

Federer broke for a 3-2 lead in the fourth set, then used four aces to hold to 4-2. By now, Djokovic looked weary, sucking air between points, and when he sent a volley wide at the end of a 19-stroke point, Federer broke again for 5-2.

Moments later, the match was over, and Federer pumped both fists and bellowed.

He was back in the U.S. Open final.

He was back, period.

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