NEW YORK – On a wind-swept day at the U.S. Open that had everyone complaining about the conditions, Roger Federer simply embraced them.
Choosing placement over power on his serve and using a handful of sublimely spinning drop shots to take advantage of winds gusting to 35 mph, No. 2 Federer moved one win away from his seventh straight final at Flushing Meadows with a 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 victory Wednesday over No. 5 Robin Soderling.
Could Federer, a five-time champion at America’s tennis championship, actually enjoy playing when the wind affects every toss, every groundstroke, even makes it hard to see?
“Yeah, I think I do by now, because I see it as a challenge and I see it as an opportunity to play differently,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s cold. Everywhere it’s blowing. You feel like it’s blowing through your ears and into your eyes.”
Everyone felt that way, including No. 7 Vera Zvonareva and No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who each won their matches to advance to the women’s semifinals. In one men’s semifinal, Federer will play No. 3 Novak Djokovic, who beat No. 17 Gael Monfils 7-6 (2), 6-1, 6-2 in another windblown match.
On Thursday, the other men’s semifinal will be set when No. 1 Rafael Nadal plays fellow countryman, No. 8 Fernando Verdasco, and No. 12 Mikhail Youzhny faces No. 25 Stanislas Wawrinka.
The forecast calls for more wind, though maybe not as strong as it was Wednesday, the fifth straight day in which the massive American flag above Arthur Ashe Stadium got whipped stiff by the gusts.
“Obviously, the conditions were maybe as difficult as we’ve seen so far in the tournament,” Djokovic said. “We didn’t have wind only one direction. We had it all over.”
Federer handled it best, though even he had a few problems.
Playing the man who beat him in the quarterfinals of the French Open, snapping his record streak of 23 straight Grand Slam semifinal appearances, one of Federer’s few lapses came midway through the third set, when he lost serve to fall behind 5-3.
No need to worry.
Faced with dropping his first set of the tournament, he opened up Soderling’s service game by hitting one of his drop volleys to get ahead. Then, he took something off his groundstrokes to mix things up — a fine strategy on a night where everyone had to adjust to the wind. All that mixing and matching paid off when Soderling dumped two forehands into the net to close out the game.
“The margin is small,” Soderling said. “There’s a couple points here or there. He played well at the end.”
By the time Federer had made it 6-5, even the fans — almost always rooting for more tennis — were cheering lustily for him. He didn’t disappoint, closing the match with a pair of well-placed aces clocked at modest speeds of 107 and 122 mph.
All part of doing business at Flushing Meadows, where scorching hot temperatures that welcomed the start of the tournament have been replaced by brisk winds that caught everyone’s attention Wednesday. Growing up and practicing in Switzerland prepares a guy for that, Federer said.
“I mean, obviously if it’s snowing, then it gets a bit different,” he joked. “I haven’t had that yet, so I guess I would freak out when that starts happening.”
The wind also played havoc in the Wozniacki match, though that picture may have been best illustrated by looking not on the court, but in her player-guest box, where her newest admirer, Donald Trump, watched on, his poofy hair coming unshellacked in the breeze.
Wozniacki, a finalist last year, is already figuring out how to succeed in the Big Apple. For instance, when The Donald calls asking for something, you say yes.
“He called my agent and asked if there was going to be a space in my box,” Wozniacki said. “I said, `Of course, there’s always a place for Mr. Trump.'”
She beat unseeded Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 7-5 in a match that “featured” 43 unforced errors from the loser.
“I would say it was the most difficult conditions I have ever played in,” Cibulkova said.
Earlier, Zvonareva was singing the same tune after her 6-3, 7-5 victory over No. 31 Kaia Kanepi, a match in which Kanepi committed a cringe-inducing 60 unforced errors.
The tone for the match was set early, when the players traded service breaks right away to make it 1-1, and they combined for 12 unforced errors and one winner through the first two games.
“Yeah, I think the weather was definitely not for the good tennis out there,” Zvonareva said.
Only Federer might have disagreed.
He neutralized Soderling, whose victory over Federer earlier this year added to one the year before at Roland Garros against Nadal. Soderling is one of only two players to beat Roger and Rafa in the Grand Slams, which is what made him, in many minds, the most dangerous player in the draw this side of the top two.
But he won’t do any more damage in this tournament. Federer improved to 13-1 against Soderling and said it was not a revenge match in his mind.
“I just feel happy that I played a good match under tough circumstances against a player who’s really hard to beat these days, especially on the hard courts,” Federer said. “It really favors his game, and he’s had a wonderful run the last couple of years.”