PARIS — Quickly and rather quietly, Roger Federer is back in the French Open semifinals.
There will be absolutely nothing low-key — or, it seems safe to say, easy — about what comes next for the 16-time Grand Slam champion: a showdown against Novak Djokovic, who is 41-0 this year and unbeaten in his last 43 matches overall.
With attention focused elsewhere, perhaps in part because some assume his best days are behind him, the no-fuss, no-muss Federer simply has won all 15 sets he’s played so far, capped Tuesday by a 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (3) quarterfinal victory over No. 9-seeded Gael Monfils of France.
“For me, the plan is trying to get a step further and into the finals of the French Open,” said Federer, who won the 2009 title at Roland Garros to complete a career Grand Slam but lost in the quarterfinals a year ago. “At the end of the day, that’s, for me, the big picture, and that’s why I entered the French Open. It wasn’t to stop Novak.”
Nevertheless, their semifinal is sure to be the talk of the tennis world until it’s played Friday.
For Djokovic — who didn’t need to exert himself Tuesday, because his quarterfinal opponent, Fabio Fognini, withdrew Monday with an injured left leg — a victory over Federer would guarantee a rise to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time. It also would make the second-seeded Serb 42-0 in 2011, tying John McEnroe in 1984 for the best start to a season in the Open era, which began in 1968. And it would put Djokovic one win from his first French Open title, the objective he cares most about at the moment.
For Federer, a victory would put him into his first Grand Slam final in more than 16 months, his longest drought since he won his first major title at Wimbledon in 2003. It would allow Federer to make clear to everyone that he’s still at the top of the game as his 30th birthday approaches in August. Plus, it would serve as something of a rebuke to Djokovic, who beat Federer in the semifinals at the U.S. Open in September and Australian Open in January.
“There’s less at stake for me than for him,” said Federer, who is 13-9 against Djokovic over their careers but 0-3 this year. “He’s got a lot of things going on.”
Both men surely are well aware who the last player to defeat Djokovic anywhere was: Federer, a 6-4, 6-1 winner in the ATP Finals at London, way back on Nov. 27.
Against Monfils, Federer began poorly, bothered by swirling wind that reached 30 mph and delayed the match at one point because clouds of loose clay dust kicked up into the players’ eyes. He pushed one easy forehand into the net and flubbed a gimme volley. He double-faulted twice in one game while getting broken at love en route to trailing 3-1.
“It was not just playing against Gael,” Federer said. “It was playing against the conditions.”
It didn’t take long to figure things out, though. Federer broke Monfils to make it 3-all with a half-volley drop winner, then again to end the first set by smacking a return of a 128 mph serve so well that a startled Monfils missed a forehand.
Recalling that he beat Federer the last time they played, Monfils said, “I told myself, ‘Why not?’ But today he was stronger than me.”
No one in this French Open has tested Federer, whose streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals ended in Paris 12 months ago. That was followed by a quarterfinal exit at Wimbledon, too, hastening talk of Federer’s demise.
After getting an up-close look at Federer, Monfils was urged to predict the outcome of the Swiss star’s next match.
“I don’t know who’s going to win. But as usual, Roger … is still right there. He has still a lot of desire,” Monfils said. “I’ll be the first to watch that semi.”
Federer has won only one title this season — six fewer than Djokovic — and is seeded No. 3 in Paris, the first time he hasn’t been No. 1 or 2 at a Grand Slam tournament since 2004. Instead, five-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, who faces two-time runner-up and fifth-seeded Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals Wednesday, is seeded No. 1, and Djokovic is No. 2.
Wednesday’s other men’s quarterfinal is No. 4 Andy Murray against unseeded Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina. Playing with a torn tendon in his right ankle, Murray won the last five games to finish off a 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 comeback victory over No. 15 Viktor Troicki of Serbia in a fourth-round match suspended Monday night because of darkness.
“I’ve done a lot icing. Taking a lot pills,” said Murray, who’s won eight of his last nine five-set matches. “I was given crutches, which I didn’t use, because I didn’t know how to.”
There was an odd scene at 3-2 in the fifth set, when a ball boy — apparently believing there was a break in action — ran on the court during a point, while Troicki was lining up an overhead smash. Troicki hit the winner, but the chair umpired ordered the point replayed.
“Kid just jumped in and messed up my point,” Troicki said afterward, noting that he’d never seen that happen before, in person or on TV.
Murray won the do-over, but Troicki actually broke serve to take the game. Eventually, Murray took the match, making this French Open the first Grand Slam tournament since Wimbledon in 1989 with the top five seeded men all in the quarterfinals.
That sort of orderliness has been completely absent from the women’s draw, where none of the top three reached the quarterfinals. But both of Tuesday’s matches were won by the higher-seeded woman.
No. 5 Francesca Schiavone of Italy, the defending champion, came back after losing 10 of the first 12 games and beat No. 14 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia 1-6, 7-5, 7-5. On Thursday, Schiavone will meet No. 11 Marion Bartoli of France, who defeated No. 13 Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, the 2009 champion, 7-6 (4), 6-4.
Bartoli bounces on the balls of her feet and takes practice swings between points, then hits most shots with two hands wrapped around her racket. It all looks a tad unconventional, but it works: She was the 2007 Wimbledon runner-up and now is only the fourth woman from France to reach the semifinals at Roland Garros in the Open era.
Bartoli lost in the first or second round in eight of her previous 10 French Opens. So when Kuznetsova shanked a forehand to end their match, Bartoli said she thought: “My God, I’m in the semifinal of my home Grand Slam. Finally, I can play well here.”
Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich