Hunting a third consecutive title this week, Federer has pounded aces, slashed volleys, and glided with leonine majesty across the Bercy court.  The top seed has faced break points during just one of his thirty service games, typically cruising through them in two or three minutes.  In his fourth straight week of action, he has shown few signs of either physical or mental fatigue but instead has displayed an urgency absent from his previous fall campaigns.   Considering the slick surface and his glittering performances this week, one easily forgets that Federer had not reached even a semifinal at the Paris Indoors before this year; in fact, it remains the only Masters event where he has not contested a championship match.  Between the Swiss legend and a Nadal-tying 18th shield lie three opponents who have toppled him exactly once in 21 attempts and never on a hard court.  Spared from facing Masters 1000 nemesis Murray, Federer confronts the far less troubling challenge of cooling a feverish French crowd in his semifinal meeting with Monfils.  Although they haven’t met on a hard court since early 2008, the world #2 has won twelve of thirteen total sets from a player whose showmanship he seems to disdain.  An emblem of the sport’s elite dimension, Federer frowns upon the idiosyncratic albeit entertaining antics of his Saturday opponent.  This dissonance in their styles and personalities should lend intrigue to an encounter that theoretically should produce scant suspense.

A finalist here last year, Monfils came within a tiebreak of claiming his first Masters shield before his frenzied fans.  Watching him maneuver past Murray, we reflected that the exceptionally fast court speed may benefit this feline counterpuncher by forcing him to play shorter, more aggressive points.  Armed with ample offensive weapons, Monfils usually rallies purposelessly from the baseline rather than unleashing them.  In his quarterfinal, however, he rarely failed to exploit an opening and approached the net with confidence.  After his concentration predictably dipped in the second set, he recovered impressively to snatch away the initiative from his higher-ranked opponent.  And his drum-beating, flag-waving compatriots refused to let him surrender when he tottered towards near-certain defeat against Verdasco.  Nevertheless, home-court advantage could not rescue Monfils during his three previous clashes with the world #2.  While all of those matches unfolded on clay rather than the Frenchman’s favored hard courts, Roger also prefers the asphalt of Bercy to the dirt of Roland Garros.  Last year here, however, the much less dangerous Benneteau built a spectacular upset over Federer upon inspired shot-making and relentless fan support.  Not traveling to London for the year-end championships, Gael still targets a meaningful objective in 2010:  the Davis Cup final.  The leading singles member on the French team, he could bring substantial momentum to Belgrade if his week rises from memorable to magical.

Michael Llodra Michael Llodra of France (L) and Robin Soderling of Sweden (R) pose with their trophies after the singles final of the ATP 35th ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament at the Ahoy Centre Rotterdam on February 24, 2008 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Stunning two former champions this week, Llodra has proudly hoisted the banner of serve-and-volley tennis on the hard court best suited to this style.  The Eastbourne champion leaped and lunged through tense first sets against both Djokovic and Davydenko before those prestigious foes folded swiftly in the second set.  Although Llodra’s style requires precision and intense focus for extended periods, it demands a similar investment from his opponents, who must connect with low, pinpoint returns and capitalize upon the rare opportunities that emerge.  Will Soderling prove equal to that task?  Seeking his first career Masters final, the moody Swede still oscillates between overwhelming and underwhelming in the same tournament.  The French crowd could not salvage more than four games for Simon against Soderling, however, nor could Roddick repeat his two victories over the world #5 earlier this year.   After a modest fall season, he should have accumulated precious confidence from those wins as London looms.   But an unexpected loss to Llodra could reverse this encouraging surge, so Soderling can’t afford to let fantasies of Federer invade his mind.  He has fallen twice to the Frenchman on indoor hard courts, including a quarterfinal this year in Marseille.  Since they have played three tiebreaks in five total sets, one suspects that this encounter might be decided in a few fleeting moments, such as a net-skimming return or bold second serve.  In the Swede’s two previous Masters semifinals, he fell far short of his brutal best and contributed to his own demise with unsightly errors.  A far more complete player than Llodra, he probably will atone for those earlier disappointments—but not before French hearts flutter with ephemeral hope.


We return tomorrow to preview the final Masters 1000 match of 2010!