Federer finds the fluency to frustrate Nalbandian

Australian Open: Swiss No 2 seed mixes power with precision as tempestuous Russian loses to Clijsters
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The Independent Online

The writing was on the wall for David Nalbandian in the first set, when he had two break points against Roger Federer and the chance to take a 6-5 lead. Federer served an ace. One break point saved. Then another ace. Two break points saved. Then a third. Advantage Federer. And a fourth. Game Federer.

It was a night of missed opportunities for the Argentinian No 8 seed, who lost 7-5, 6-4, 5-7, 6-3 in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. He could fling his racket down in disgust, whack balls heavenwards in fury, rant to himself as much he liked, but he could not find a way to overcome Federer.

After dispatching Lleyton Hewitt and Nalbandian - both tricky opponents for him in the past - in consecutive matches at Melbourne Park, the Swiss No 2 seed has his sights firmly fixed on Sunday's men's final.

"I am confident now," said Federer, who plays Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semi-finals tomorrow. "I feel like I've definitely got the game to beat Ferrero." Asked about the No 1 ranking, which will be his for the first time if he defeats the Spaniard, he replied: "We'll see. I can't say much, because I'm focused on this tournament. So the No 1 is secondary now."

The quarter-final was a strangely sober, almost ritualised encounter between two rising stars: Federer the reigning Wimbledon champion, Nalbandian the runner-up in 2002, both seeking to build on their early promise.

Neither could break serve in the first set, which seemed to be heading towards a tie-break when the 22-year-old Swiss player found himself with a set point on Nalbandian's serve at 5-6, 30-40. The Argentinian deposited a backhand in the net.

It was in the previous game that Federer had been 15-40 down. "I don't think I've ever hit four aces in a row," he said. "They were very important at that stage, because it was looking like he was going to run away with the set. They came at the right time, and that was maybe the key of the match."

Nalbandian managed to break serve in the second set but, to his frustration, Federer broke back. The pair notched up two breaks apiece before the Swiss man once again tied up the set on his opponent's serve. "We love you, Roger," a woman in the stands called out. The crowd has warmed to Federer, all the more so because there are no locals left in the tournament. Sports-savvy Australians love his style of play. "It's nice to have some people behind me," he said. "I'm lucky because I'm playing the one-handed backhand, I can mix it up a lot. I have to, otherwise I lose."

The man from Basle should have won the two-hour, 41-minute match in straight sets but, after failing to exploit his chances in the third, he let Nalbandian break him and serve it out. In the fourth set, he got down to business, going a break up and then producing his 20th ace to bring up match point.

His error tally was impressive, too - 55 compared with 30 for his opponent - but, as the 22-year-old Argentinian put it: "I don't care about the statistics. The match is enough. To win or to lose: simple. I don't think I played badly. The match was very close. The difference was that, on the big points, he played better than me."

Federer, who does not have a coach, revealed that he has been preparing himself for big matches by knocking up with junior players in Melbourne, preferably his compatriots.

Earlier, Ferrero struggled in his quarter-final against Hicham Arazi before prevailing 6-1, 7-6, 7-6. The Spaniard, who will regain the No 1 ranking that he held for eight weeks last year if he wins the Open, has been fighting various injuries but took the first set so easily that the Moroccan looked pained.

Halfway through the second set, the world No 51 came alive, producing some brilliant tennis and breaking Ferrero's serve for 5-5 before losing a closely fought tie-break. Arazi had three set points in the tie-break; he had another at 5-3 in the third set but again was unable to convert it and failed to serve out the set at 5-4. The Spaniard won the third set tie-break; the crowd gave both men a standing ovation.

Ferrero, who was looked increasingly fatigued, was relieved that it ended in three sets. He said the semi-final promised to be tough. "Roger is a very talented guy," he said. "He can do every shot he wants. It's always difficult to return his serves. He does amazing shots whenever he wants."