Order was restored for Roger Federer on Philippe Chatrier on quarter-finals day in Paris.
After three challenging rounds that pushed him to the limits, lost him four sets and brought him close to an early exit from Roland Garros, Federer quelled the flamboyant talent of Gael Monfils in straight sets.
The first set was almost a mirror image of the one against Tommy Haas two days ago. Federer looked a little unsettled, struggled to find his serve and length, and offered up three break points to Monfis on the way to a tie-break.
But when it came to the crunch, the Federer serve found its range. He saved a set point with a brilliant forehand finished by a winning smash, and repeated the winning formula to take the set.
The points were all square as they entered the second set, but with one set under his belt, the brakes came off the Federer game and his play became a little more relaxed and liberated.
He broke Monfils immediately and, despite some enormous open-shouldered forehands from the Frenchman, Federer defended well, and played a tactically astute game. More than once he sliced to Monfils’ weaker backhand and then finished him off with a blistering forehand.
Federer quickly led 4-0. Monfils then held his own serve but Federer, with intelligent wide deliveries, sometimes followed in for a volley, sometimes finished off with a deep forehand to the opposite quarter, took a very comfortable set at 6-2.
Play came to a halt between sets two and three while Monfils took a comfort break, then called the trainer and the doctor.
Federer looked, quite frankly, a bit irritated by the delay, but slumped back in his chair and waited. Eventually, he ambled onto court and waited, hands on hips. He likes things done by the book, and no medical time-out had been called.
Monfils duly returned to play with no clear indication of the cause of his problem. If it was his knee, he didn’t show it as play resumed. With just over seven hours on court in his first four matches, the Frenchman showed little sign of fatigue, but then neither did Federer with over 11 hours under his feet.
The tennis certainly picked up, both playing attacking tennis, serving big and running every ball down. Aggressive returning by Federer was matched by Monfils’ big shot-making and, at last, Monfils’ chest-beating induced the participation of the subdued crowd.
At 4-4, Monfils was challenged hard and held firm through a number of break points. Federer’s attacking play eventually paid dividends, though, and the break was achieved. A routine service game won Federer the match in a set less than their semi encounter last year.
The crowd rose—their allegiance now with the man that the entire tennis world wants to win the French title this year.
If Federer’s commitment to this tournament remained in any doubt after his decision to cut all but his minimum press requirements, it certainly could not be doubted from his body language on court today.
His expression remained deadly serious throughout the match, but the winning shot elicited arms raised in victory, a great roar, and a smile of huge satisfaction.
With this defeat of the ebullient Monfils, things seem to have taken a further turn upwards in the Federer campaign.
But Juan Matin Del Potro will pose a different set of problems on Friday. While Federer was striding towards a straightforward win on the centre court, the Argentine was winning a game of big hitting attrition against Tommy Robredo on Suzanne Lenglen.
Huge serve, powerful forehand, and a massive frame that gets fitter and faster by the week, Del Potro has shown extremely consistent form at Roland Garros. He has dropped just one set—against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—on his way to the semis.
Federer will need to take a leaf out of Robredo’s limited book of tricks, and swing the big man from side to side at speed. He will also want to make full use of his new drop-shot skills. Like a huge oil-tanker, Del Potro finds it hard to change direction quickly: his mobility is his weakness but his strengths are manifold.
Federer’s strengths, however, are countless when he’s confident—and he starts to look just that. After all, he has been in this position in the last 19 Grand Slams.