It is Roger Federer's ability to fashion the right shot at precisely the right time that sets him apart as a top-level player
Roger Federer is a magician. At the right time, he comes up with the right trick. And yesterday's win over Fernando Gonzalez was a perfect example of Federer's conjuring at its best. I'm not just talking about his play, which we all know can be mesmerising, beautiful, so powerful in all areas. I'm talking about the specific ability to come up with a perfect shot to win a significant point that steers the match his way or keeps him resolutely on course towards victory.
Only a few people in the history of tennis achieve and retain that ability for long periods in their careers. Laver, Borg, Sampras and Agassi spring to mind. All great champions. Federer is proving himself a great champion.
For my money, the magic timing in the first set came with Federer at 6-5 up and Gonzalez serving at deuce. That game – and the set – can still go any way at all. Federer hits a wonderful forehand passing volley for advantage. That's timing. The pressure all shifts to Gonzalez, who makes an unforced error. Federer is a set up and in command.
Thirty minutes later it's 2-0. Gonzalez did not play badly. He can take a lot of credit from the match. But when he's hitting the best ball he's got and finding it's still not enough, it can be a little dispiriting. That's what often happens when you're playing Federer, who produced more magic – on his serve, at 5-5 in the third – to up the pressure. The first point was won with a 115mph ace. Then he hit a 121mph ace. Then a 124mph ace. Then a 125mph serve, forehand winner. Game. 6-5.
And even when Gonzalez responded wonderfully to go 6-6 and into a tie-break, Federer picked his time to turn the screw. The volley at 5-2 to go 6-2 and earn a string a match points – only one was needed, and aced – was the magician at work.
One interesting detail from yesterday, which might just give the rest of the guys a glimmer of hope that Federer is fallible, was an inconsistent toss on serve. For a while it seemed to be veering very slightly left, and that took a bit of power off. He corrected it but I'd guess that might be something his coach, Tony Roche, might want to look at. It's always best to identify even the smallest problems before they become any bigger.
Next up for Federer is Lleyton Hewitt, in a semi-final scheduled for tomorrow. Hewitt is a street fighter to Federer's magician, as he showed in beating Feliciano Lopez yesterday. He leaps around all over the place utilising his superb footwork, the best in the game, allowing him to make his shots, over and over. He's a stayer, a battler, the kind of guy you'd want in your foxhole in a war. He'd jump out of his shoes for the cause. Quite how he's going to handle Federer for a place in the final, we don't yet know. It's going to be a clash of styles, and intriguing to watch.