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Federer breaks Ancic in flawless display

Roger Federer yesterday accelerated with ominous momentum into his ninth successive Grand Slam semi-final, beating the towering Croat Mario Ancic in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. The top seed and three-times Wimbledon champion is an engagingly modest fellow, but even he described it as "an incredible performance."

Whether he is aware that he now stands just one behind Ivan Lendl, who holds the Open-era record of 10 consecutive semi-finals, between 1985 and 1988, Federer doubtless has half an eye on Bjorn Borg's 30-year-old record of winning here without dropping a set. Grand Slam semi-finals he takes for granted these days, but even for him, 21 sets for and none against would be something special.

It is certainly getting harder to see who might force him to four or five sets, let alone beat him. So far he has dropped two service games in these championships, one of them in yesterday's third set when he was 3-0 up. Ancic, who battled admirably to the last, is the last man to take Federer's scalp here, in the first round in 2002. But the 22-year-old seventh seed never came close to repeating his achievement of four years ago, despite having been described by John McEnroe as the man left in the draw with the game most likely to thwart the champion.

At 2-2 in the first set it at least seemed as if an interesting contest might ensue, but following the first of two lengthy rain delays, Federer came out with his extraordinary repertoire in even better shape than it had been when he and Ancic sought refuge in the locker-room. He promptly broke the formidable Ancic serve, and the die was cast for the remainder of the match.

In an interview with the BBC's Sue Barker on Tuesday, Federer had acknowledged that Ancic might be a tricky opponent. "You have to always expect the unexpected," he said. How true. During the break between the fifth and sixth games of the opening set a couple of clowns representing the Fathers For Justice campaign leapt out of the crowd and tried to play a rally on the hallowed Centre Court turf.

With a male streaker having paraded his limited assets during Maria Sharapova's match against Elena Dementieva the previous day, Wimbledon might have to review its security measures. There are nutters out there, as well as clowns.

On the other hand, the lark at least gave the crowd something to smile about on a day when awe rather than amusement was the dominant emotion. At times Federer's tennis looked almost inhuman, and he nearly ended one rally in the third set by hitting a winner off the Ancic smash. It sailed just a few inches over the baseline. But for the most part, it might have been one of the Fathers For Justice campaigners still out there, for all that Ancic could do to stem the tide.

At 3-4 in the third set he held a point to break Federer's serve for the second time, but the champion saved it with an astounding piece of athleticism, whipping a cross-court winner from a powerful forehand that lesser players might have been happy just to bat across the net.

Sitting in the crowd watching all this unfold was the American golfer Freddie Couples, whose unhurried, unflappable demeanour on the golf course is matched by Federer's on the tennis court. Couples might be trying like hell, but his swing looks languidly effortless. The same is true of the way Federer swings a racket, the difference being that he is also as dominant as Tiger Woods at his best.

On days like yesterday it seems crazy even to add the word "arguably" to the contention that he is the best male tennis player of all time. There are simply no chinks in his armour. When he double-faulted at 4-3 in the first set, to give Ancic a glimmer of hope, it was only his fourth double-fault of the fortnight.

Which brings us to the Wimbledon statistics sheet thoughtfully provided by IBM. Except for double faults, and for that matter aces, Federer led the stats in practically every category before yesterday's quarter-final. He had won a remarkable 70 per cent of his second serves, which was way ahead of all the other quarter-finalists except, perhaps significantly, Rafael Nadal.

On paper, the Spaniard, whose match was due to begin in the Court One gloaming after the match between Radek Stepanek and Jonas Bjorkman, has played almost as well here as the Swiss, struggling only in his second-round match against Robert Kendrick.

One hates to contradict the great McEnroe, but maybe it was always the second seed who posed the greatest threat to Federer here, even though Wimbledon is played not on paper, but on Nadal's least-favoured surface, grass. Whoever Federer plays in the final - and surely Lake Geneva is more likely to dry up than he is not to make it that far - he offered his own verdict on his chances of winning his fourth title on Sunday. "If I keep up this sort of performance I don't see myself losing," he said. Ancic echoed that.