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Federer needs 2 wins for 1st French Open title

ROGER Federer is accustomed to Grand Slam butterflies. He finds it difficult to eat or sleep. He feels fatigued and jittery and even a bit dizzy.

Then Federer steps on the court, and he's fine.

That was the case in the quarterfinals at the French Open, when Federer shook off the shakes to produce his best effort of the tournament. It left him two wins shy of a career Grand Slam and a 14th major title, which would equal Pete Sampras' record. And he's 5-0 against his semifinal opponent tomorrow, towering Argentine Juan Martin del Potro.

Federer beat Gael Monfils of France 7-6 (3), 5-7, 7-5 yesterday after approaching the match with apprehension.

"We're all nervous at this stage of the competition," Federer said. "I felt it. ... I was tired, I was nervous, and I didn't feel really good. Then once out on court, I get my act together with the experience. I think, 'Things will be all right.'"

Some of the jitters resulted from the realization this may be his best shot at a French Open title.

Federer has been beaten at Roland Garros by Rafael Nadal the past four years, including the past three finals. Robin Soderling did Federer and the rest of the field a favor with an upset win over Nadal, the King of Clay, in the fourth round.

No. 3-seeded Andy Murray and No. 4 Novak Djokovic have also been eliminated. Federer is a combined 26-1 against the other three semifinalists - del Potro, Soderling (9-0) and Fernando Gonzalez (12-1). Against the trio, Federer has won 63 of 69 sets.

"It's also one of the reasons why I was nervous," Federer said, "because of the whole stories of Nadal losing, Murray losing, Djokovic losing maybe opening up the draw a little bit."

Shaky nerves may be his biggest opponent the rest of the way, but he handled them well against Monfils. After three consecutive tough matches, including a scare when trailing German veteran Tommy Haas by two sets, Federer found a more straightforward way to advance.

He faced two break points in the opening game and two others later, but saved them all. He also saved a set point in the tiebreaker and took the partisan crowd out of the match early.

Not that fans were that upset. If a Frenchman can't win the French Open, they would love for Federer to do it.

"I'm delighted to see to what extent they are supporting me," he said. "I feel like they've almost adopted me. ...

"Everybody is like, 'This is your year. You've got to do it.' They're screaming from their scooters and out of the car. They even get out at the red lights and want me to sign an autograph or take a picture. It's quite incredible this last couple of weeks."

Now he's a semifinalist for the 20th consecutive time at a Grand Slam tournament, extending his record. The 20-year-old del Potro earned his first major semifinal berth by beating No. 16 Tommy Robredo 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.

In Friday's other match, the No. 23-seeded Soderling will try to continue his improbable run against No. 12 Gonzalez. Soderling finds himself beyond the third round at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time, while Gonzalez is the first Chilean since 1960 to reach the Roland Garros semifinals.

The first of the women's semifinals Thursday matched No. 1 Dinara Safina against No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova. No. 7 Svetlana Kuznetsova, coming off a grueling three-set win over Serena Williams, was to play Australia's Samantha Stosur in the second match.

Neither Stosur nor Cibulkova has won a tour title, much less a Grand Slam tournament.

Del Potro's new to the spotlight, too. He has climbed from 44th to fifth in the rankings in the past 18 months, but Federer has beaten him twice this year - in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, and last month in Madrid on clay.

"With his game, he does everything perfectly," del Potro said. "His game is much of a problem to me, and this is why I never won when I played him."

Del Potro has a big serve and forehand but could face his own battle with nerves. And he knows the crowd will be in Federer's corner.

"Everybody wants Roger to win this tournament," del Potro said. "If I can't win this tournament, I want to see next Sunday Roger with the trophy."


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