NEW YORK – Roger Federer needed exactly one minute to win the first game. It seemed an indication of how the night would go: Surely, he'd march through this quarterfinal meeting with the ever-athletic but spacey Gael Monfils.
The crowd expected this narrative. Many journalists had been predicting it all day. With a 7-2 advantage in previous meetings, Federer seemed confident. But if that was how it was supposed to go, no one told Monfils.
Monfils brought everything he could muster, pushing Federer to the brink before losing in a thrilling five-set match. Monfils won five points on five chances at the net in the first set and his serve hit 132 mph en route to taking the set 6-4. In the second, he only improved.
But then, on the brink of holding serve to go up 2-0, as he balanced his weight after a backhand return, the lanky Frenchman came down funny on his right ankle. It twisted at an angle uncomfortable even to watch, and pain spread across his face as he fell to the ground. Sitting along the baseline, he massaged his ankle and flexed his foot.
Was this the end of his phenomenal start? No, not this guy. Not as he was knocking on the door of Super Saturday. No way. Before a trainer could approach, he bounced back to his feet. He stood facing the wall, willing himself to play through the pain.
One serve later, he'd succeeded, holding serve to lead 2-0. Federer followed suit. At the 2-1 changeover, Monfils removed his flourescent green and black shoe and again massaged his foot. A trainer came out to help him stretch, to assess the damage. If the pain continued to bother him, it didn't show. He went on to win the set 6-3, committing only four unforced errors to Federer's 13 and converting the break for set point. Federer looked flat; Monfils looked solid. On to the third set.
Federer started the set with a break, but Monfils fought on. With Federer serving at 4-5, Monfils forced double match point, 15-40. In the first attempt, Federer's tournament came within inches of ending. The shot floated past him, hanging in the air for what felt like ages, and all he could do was hope that it landed out.
It did, and from there, Monfils never recovered. On the second match point, he kept holding up his hand, holding off Federer's serve, delaying. He seemed to be more nervous than Federer. He was one point away from his second Grand Slam semifinal, but as he so often does, Monfils psyched himself out. From there, his night was one of double faults and missed shots at the net.
The crowd roared with every Federer point. With every game won, he earned a standing ovation. The fan favorite had battled back from a situation he rarely faces. Thursday night, though, it was more a case of Monfils falling apart than Federer taking over. He served the final point with the crowd still cheering, ready to put this match behind him and move on to his ninth U.S. Open semifinal. As he sealed the 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 victory, the applause seemed weighted with a sense of relief.
"I believed I could turn it around from the get-go when the third set started, and I'm so happy the crowd got into it," Federer said later. "It would have been an unbelievable letdown for me to get broken at 5-4 and lose a match like that. It would have been not very cool, I must say."
Recalling the first match point, he added, "It was one of those moments where you got the back against the wall and hope to get a bit lucky and you hope to play exactly the right shots that you need or that he completely just messes it up. Either way works as long as you get out of it. But clearly it's not a great feeling, because you feel it's not in your control anymore really. So I'm very, very happy to have found a way tonight."
Up next, he'll face No. 14 seed Marin Cilic, who advanced in straight sets earlier on Thursday by defeating sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych 6-2, 6-4, 7-6. This will be the 25-year-old Croat's first U.S. Open semifinal appearence, and first Grand Slam semifinal since making it that far in the 2010 Australian Open.
"It feels great to be in the semis [for the] first time after three tries in [the] quarterfinals. [I] lost both times to eventual winners," Cilic said after his match. "[It] just feels great to be here."
Federer has defeated Cilic in their five previous meetings, including a four-set win here in 2011. In his news conference, he noted that tonight's match was a good way to prepare for Super Saturday.
"I know that Cilic is going to stay on the baseline and dictate play as much as he can," Federer said. "Otherwise he's actually quite similar to Gael: he's tall, [has] a big serve, can return well, [has] a big reach. From that standpoint, I guess it was actually good playing Gael tonight ahead of the match against Cilic."
The biggest difference will be the time of day: For the first time in this fortnight, Federer will be playing a day match on Saturday. But regardless of what time the 17-time Grand Slam champion takes the court, New York loves Federer. And Federer loves New York.
"New Yorkers, there is nobody like New Yorkers, and this stadium here is phenomenal," Federer said. "I think once they clamp down and get into it, it really is truly special."
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