Federer's finesse outfoxes Gonzalez

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The Independent Online

Federer has played thrilling tennis in many of his 34 successive victories on grass – he is now only seven short of Bjorn Borg's record – but few wins have been as imperious as this. If the 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 scoreline correctly told a story of the champion's supremacy as he headed for a semi-final with Lleyton Hewitt, it did not start to express the beauty of his play or the hearty contribution of Gonzalez to an enthralling match.

Gonzalez has won four of his five titles on clay courts but is no defensive baseline scrambler. There are few more attacking players than the world No 24, who has a thundering forehand – which he delivers after a wind-up of which Ali G would be proud – and a heavyweight serve. He went into the match with a record of 69 aces here this year, second only to Max Mirnyi.

Crucially, however, Gonzalez is noticeably weaker on his backhand and can be reluctant to go to the net, which is perhaps understandable when his preferred rallying position is six feet behind the baseline.In most of their baseline duels Federer was standing several feet further forward.

Yet such was the weight of Gonzalez's hitting that there were times when even Federer was left reeling on the ropes: trailing 4-2 in the first set, for example, the Chilean broke back thanks to three huge cross-court forehands.

All too often, however, Federer absorbed the blows and counter-attacked with killer punches. Under pressure he often responded with a fizzing sliced forehand which flew flat and low over the net and regularly flummoxed Gonzalez. The Swiss, always trying to attack his opponent's weaker backhand side, hardly missed a volley and his athleticism was such that Gonzalez had to pepper the lines and corners to hit winners.

The last two points of the first set saw Federer at his best, chasing down a drop shot to guide a subtle forehand winner across court and then forcing Gonzalez into a missed volley after cleverly slowing the point down with a sliced return after the 24-year-old Chilean had crashed another mighty forehand down the line.

In breaking Gonzalez to win the set and start the second on his own serve, Federer gave the impression that he could win games almost at will – especially when he repeated the feat in the second set, having already broken Gonzalez in the second game.

Gonzalez, to his credit, was in no mood to throw in the towel and came out slugging harder than ever in the third set. There was even the rare sight of anger burning in the ice king's eyes when he cursed himself for a poor approach and then berated a line judge – "That's out, man!" – for failing to call out another Gonzalez pile-driver.

Gonzalez had his opportunities, most notably on break point at 4-4. The Chilean ran so far around Federer's serve that he played his forehand return, at the end of another huge wind-up, from outside the tramline of the backhand court. It ended up in the net, along with Gonzalez's chances, as Federer went on to play the tie-break brilliantly, winning the last five points.

The way Federer celebrated, jumping and punching the air, showed his delight. "I played a great match," he said. "You always have to weather the storm against him because he hits the ball with so much pace. But I knew he couldn't play through the entire five-setter hitting incredible forehands. He was going to have his lapses and I had to take advantage of them."

He added: "I was very much pushed into the corners today. I had to come up with something and I thought I did well. My slice is working well. I've always had to rely on defence as well, because you can't attack all the time. It gives me two options. I've always felt I had a good defensive game, but today gave me a chance to prove it again."

It is hard to see anyone stopping Federer's pursuit of a hat-trick of Wimbledon titles. "Unstoppable" was Boris Becker's verdict, while Federer himself declared: "If I play like this I know I can beat every player."

The subsequent quarter-final on Court One was, perhaps inevitably, an anti-climax. In a meeting between the players who knocked Andy Murray out of Queen's and Wimbledon respectively, Sweden's Thomas Johansson, the No 12 seed, beat Argentina's David Nalbandian, the No 18 seed, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.

Nalbandian made too many mistakes against 30-year-old Johansson, who has an excellent record on grass and plays a canny game from the back of the court. Injuries have prevented him recovering the form which saw him win the Australian Open three years ago, but he has dropped only one set here this year. He is the first Swedish semi-finalist since Stefan Edberg 12 years ago.