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Second-seeded Federer playing like No. 1, breezing through U.S. Open

NEW YORK -- Winds from the northwest, as fierce as a Rafael Nadal forehand, registered gusts as high as 31 mph. Napkins soared above the court as if they were butterflies, and so chilly was the air at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday night that much of the gentry was forced to pile blue blankets over the latest fashions from Ralph Lauren and Prada Sport.

In other words, it was cold as hell in Flushing Meadows, and Roger Federer was kind enough to destroy Robin Soderling 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in a brisk 1 hour and 56 minutes. Seeded second but playing like a world No. 1, Federer is in the U.S. Open semifinals for the seventh consecutive year.

"It's not easy, you know. It's cold. Everywhere it's blowing. You feel like it's blowing through your ears and into your eyes," said Federer, shortly after midnight. "But I think I used to dislike it so much that I'm on the other side now. I was able to kind of take enjoyment out of playing in the wind."

You write Federer off at majors at your own peril (I'm talking to you, ESPN's Michael Wilbon). He has failed to drop a set at the U.S. Open through five matches and improved to 26-4 on hard courts in 2010. He is a major threat to win Grand Slam singles title No. 17, even with Nadal lurking on the other side of the draw.

What was surprising about his win over Soderling was how easy it was. The Swede finished last year at a career-high No. 8, and had since risen to No. 5 in the world thanks to a heavy first serve and a forehand that is considered the most lethal in the game. His resume included two of the sport's biggest clay-court wins in the last 20 years: In 2009, he stopped Nadal's streak of four French Open victories with a win in the fourth round. At this year's French Open, Soderling ended Federer's streak of 23 Grand Slam semifinals, with a quarterfinal win over the Swiss.

But Soderling's power game was mitigated in the wind, and he was felled by a remarkable serving performance by Federer, who won 86 percent of his first-serve points (50 of 58) and finished with 18 aces. Most impressively, in some of the toughest conditions of the tournament, Federer recorded the same number of winners (33) as he did unforced errors and was successful on five of six break points. Soderling's ratio of errors (32) to winners (16) told much of the story. The win was Federer's 13th in 14 matches with the Swede.

"He served really well," Soderling said. "He was brushing the lines a lot of times with his first serve, which is not easy when it's weather like this. He did that very well. Much better than me."

"Because my second serve is reliable, I don't panic or double fault so much," Federer said. "So it's obviously a huge weapon in conditions like this. I think the serve was the biggest key today because obviously he's very famous for serving extremely accurate and extremely hard over a long period of time. That's what makes him so hard to beat. That wasn't the case today. He struggled to get the pace, the accuracy going, until midway through the third set when he started to hit it a bit better. Then it was almost too late, really."

Remarkably, Soderling first's ace came in the fifth game of the third set (and after 143 points of the match), and he finished with more double faults (4) than aces (2). The Swede played much crisper in the final set, breaking Federer while leading 4-3. With all the momentum on his side and the crowd thinking they were in for a long night of tennis, Soderling incredibly gave the break immediately back while serving for the set. Federer then held at 5-4 and broke Soderling again at 5-5. He closed the match out at love with his 18th ace.

"I've played in such strong winds. I've practiced in such hot conditions, whatever you throw at me, I can do it," Federer said. "I mean, obviously if it's snowing, then it gets a bit different."

He laughed.

"I haven't had that yet, so I guess I would freak out when that starts happening," Federer continued. "But then everyone would, not only me."

Federer improved to 56-5 for his career at the Open and is 44-1 in his last 45 matches in Flushing Meadows, losing only to Juan Martin del Potro in last year's finals. Next up is No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic, against whom Federer holds a 10-5 advantage, including 3-0 at the Open.

"Because he lost in the quarters of the French and in Wimbledon, some people think he's more vulnerable than ever," Djokovic said. "But I think he's actually playing really well. He played great in Toronto and Cincinnati, and he just loves this surface. He loves this tournament. "

Asked about Djokovic, Federer offered this assessment: "He's obviously waiting for a breakthrough where he can win this title, but for the last three or four years he's gone through me, and he hasn't been able to get it done."

You can feel it in the air: Federer is going to be a tough out this weekend.

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