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Federer's Great Escapes Continue

Though I'm admittedly agitated that my bold prediction of a Juan Martin Del Potro victory over Roger Federer in the French Open semifinals fell achingly short of becoming a reality, it is nonetheless amazing to witness the continued Great Escapes of The Roger. (And for good measure, it must also be noted that Robin Soderling, the Nadal-killer, pulled off an extraordinary comeback of his own as he rallied from down 4-1 in the fifth set to take out Fernando Gonzalez in a match where both players sustained a brilliant level of play throughout).

Del Potro clearly outplayed Federer over the first three sets Friday afternoon - with his play in the tiebreaker the only blip - before getting an extreme case of nerves, and couldn't dream up a first serve in the most crucial moments, en route to a five set defeat. Del Potro can take some solace in the fact that he had never before even taken a set off of Federer in their prior encounters. But it was a painful defeat for the fifth-ranked 20-year old as it was a series of mental lapses that doomed him in the later stages of this riveting match.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's, the Detroit Pistons employed the infamous "Jordan Rules" when playing the Chicago Bulls. The gist of these said rules was to physically contain Michael Jordan and not have him beat you single handedly. It indeed did accomplish its goal for a couple of years before Jordan's Bulls became a historic powerhouse.

Well, something somewhat analogous has occurred the last several years on clay when Rafael Nadal has played Federer. When Rafa plays Roger - on all surfaces, but especially clay - the Spaniard plies his "Roger Rules", which is to relentlessly attack Federer's backhand wing with high balls. This strategy allowed Nadal to thrice deny the Swiss stylist of the Paris title.

And for most of the first three sets against Federer on this day, Del Potro keenly followed this blueprint. By pinning Federer in the backhand corner with accurate and vicious groundstrokes - along with dominating on his service games - Del Potro was able to dictate the flow of the match. It felt as if the tiring matches Federer had played against Tommy Haas, Nicolas Acasuso and Paul Mathieu had taken their toll, and that here is where Federer's dreams would end. It wouldn't have been a shock either, as the fifth ranked Del Potro has been on the verge of breaking into the elite group in the sport for the last year.

But the very tall and talented Argentine started missing by just that extra bit over the last two stanzas, and Federer was able to seize control of points in a swifter and more decisive manner.

And when Federer broke Del Potro's serve immediately in the fifth set and jumped to a 2-0 lead, it appeared all was hopeless for Del Potro. But much to his credit, Del Potro broke back to even the affair at three games apiece. At this point it seemed that the mental fragility that has plagued the young star on big occasions was at least temporarily exorcised.

Then came the serving problems. Serving ahead in a set is always a huge advantage psychologically. So the pressure was back on Fed. But while serving for a 4-3 lead, Del Potro missed 9 of 10 first serves that gave the game - and inevitably the match - to Roger. It was painful to witness. Del Potro, whose service games were untouchable for three sets, lost this crucial game in that most ignoble way - on a double fault, sealing his fate.

For the first two-thirds of his career, Federer won so routinely and in such dominant fashion that excitement was scarce when he was playing in a big match. Many commented that he had never been tested or come back from a large deficit. Well that isn't the case any longer.

The last two years have seen Federer battle back on numerous occasions, and he has more than proven that he possesses bountiful grit and determination - qualities that were always hidden behind his calm and focused demeanor.

But is there something lacking in the challengers as well? Do so many without the surname of Nadal need to find a killer instinct? Are players too respectful of Federer to want to take him down?

Perhaps those ranked just below Federer should heed the words of the Brash Basher of Belleville, Illinois, the one and only Jimmy Connors. After Connors was humiliated in straight sets by his great rival Bjorn Borg in the finals of Wimbledon in 1978, he declared: "I'm gonna follow that son-of-a-bitch until the ends of the earth. Every tournament he plays, I'll be waiting. Everywhere he turns he'll see my shadow." (Connors did indeed gain revenge against the Swede when he throttled him two months later in the 1978 US Open finals, his last significant defeat of Borg).

Well, Robin Soderling - love him or hate him, and many seem to fall in the latter camp - seems to have a bit of Connors in him. Perhaps he has the necessary mental and psychological makeup to not fall under the weight of such a momentous Sunday occasion. One hopes that he at least makes it interesting in the final against Federer, who is a prohibitive favorite to take the trophy.

It would be a foolish exercise to now attempt a prediction. If the form of this tournament continues to hold, no doubt it will be a thrilling match, with either possible outcome a compelling storyline - Federer tying Sampras' mark of 14 Slams and winning the one title he craves more than any other. Or an ultimately exhilarating triumphant fortnight for Soderling, one in which the once underachieving Swede pulled off the unthinkable and beat both Federer and Nadal in a major championship.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports on Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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