There were times here yesterday when we might have been watching the Roger Federer of old. A 7-5, 6-7, 6-1 victory over Andy Roddick in the quarter-finals of the Madrid Masters featured periods of play in which the former world No 1 toyed with his opponent like a matador in the nearby Plaza de Toros. At least Roddick, losing his 17th match in their 19 meetings, left the arena knowing he would fight another day.
Apart from a loose opening service game, in which he was broken for the only time in the match, and a ragged tie-break in which he lost five points in a row from 3-0 up, Federer looked in good shape. He hit 15 aces to Roddick's nine, found a good rhythm on his ground strokes and mixed his game up with some clever changes of pace. There was even the occasional drop shot, which is not a weapon often seen in the Federer armoury.
"I thought it was a good match," Federer said afterwards. "Andy was mixing up his serve and I think I came up with some nice points. I'm happy with the way I played. I should or could have won in straight sets, but that's what happens when you play Andy sometimes. I bounced back and played well in the third set."
Nevertheless, it will be easier to judge Federer's form going into the French Open, which begins in eight days' time, only come the end of this weekend. While it might be unfair to bracket a former world No 1 and US champion with the game's also-rans, beating the likes of Roddick has not been Federer's problem of late. The players he has increasingly failed to overcome are his fellow members in the group of four that has broken away at the top of the game.
Since last summer's US Open, Federer has played seven matches against Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic and lost them all. Murray, who was meeting Juan Martin del Potro last night for the right to face Federer in today's semi-finals, has beaten him four times in a row since the US Open final.
Djokovic, who beat Ivan Ljubicic 6-4, 6-4 yesterday and will today face the winner of last night's encounter between Nadal and Fernando Verdasco, has beaten Federer twice since losing to him in the US Open semi-finals. Over the same period the Swiss has met Nadal only once, losing to him in the Australian Open final. It was his fifth defeat in succession against the man who succeeded him last summer as world No 1.
Dinara Safina, the women's world No 1, is hitting form in time for Roland Garros, where she was runner-up last year. The Russian, a 6-4, 6-3 winner over Alona Bondarenko, will meet either Jelena Jankovic or Patty Schnyder in today's semi-finals here.
In the other half of the draw, Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki continued her recent resurgence by beating Agnes Szavay 5-7, 6-1, 6-1, having also come back from a set down to beat Elena Dementieva in the previous round.