Serena into semis; Federer ousted

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PARIS — Serena Williams knows, of course, that she’s had less success at the French Open than any other Grand Slam tournament.

Of her 15 major titles, only one came at Roland Garros, back in 2002. She lost in the semifinals a year later then exited in the quarterfinals the next four times she got that far.

Against Jennifer Capriati in 2004. Against Justine Henin in 2007. Against Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2009. Against Sam Stosur in 2010.

So there Williams was Tuesday, suddenly locked in her first difficult match of this year’s French Open, having lost the second set and the opening two games of the third. Again, trouble in the quarterfinals in Paris. Again, the opponent was Kuznetsova.

“I thought,” Williams said, “you know, ‘Can’t go out like this again.’”

She did not. Williams won six of the last seven games, rallying for a 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory and reaching her first semifinal in a decade at the clay-court major tournament.

“I was so determined to get through that,” the No. 1-ranked Williams said, “and I really, really, really, really wanted it more than, I think, anyone.”

Since a first-round exit at Roland Garros a year ago, Williams is 72-3, and she’s currently on a 29-match winning streak, the best of her career and longest in a single season since her sister Venus’ 35-match run in 2000.

“Unbelievable competitor,” said Kuznetsova, who revealed after the loss that she strained an abdominal muscle earlier in the tournament. “She turns on (her) game when she needs it.”

On Thursday, Williams will meet No. 5 Sara Errani, last year’s runner-up to Maria Sharapova. Errani reached the semifinals for the third time in the last five major tournaments, beating No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska 6-4, 7-6 (6).

Williams is 5-0 against Errani.

“She forces you to play at a very high level to have any chance of winning. I’ll have to hit shots hard and deep and make her move,” said Errani, who was 0-28 against women ranked in the top five before Tuesday. “As soon as you hit a short ball, Serena gets right on top of you, and she has enough power to end the point.”

In today’s quarterfinals, the second-seeded Sharapova faces No. 18 Jelena Jankovic, while No. 3 Victoria Azarenka plays No. 12 Maria Kirilenko. The last two men’s quarterfinals are seven-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal against No. 9 Stanislas Wawrinka, and No. 1 Novak Djokovic against No. 12 Tommy Haas.

Nadal and Djokovic have combined with Roger Federer to win 30 of the past 32 Grand Slam titles, but Federer will not be around for the conclusion of this tournament. In a remarkably brief and one-sided quarterfinal Tuesday, the 17-time major champion lost to one-time major finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.

“I struggled a little bit everywhere. To be honest, personally, I’m pretty sad about the match and the way I played. But that’s how it goes. I tried to figure things out, but it was difficult. And Jo does a good job keeping the pressure on,” Federer said after the 1-hour, 51-minute match.

“He was just ... better in all areas,” continued Federer, whose lone French Open title, in 2009, allowed him to equal Pete Sampras’ then-record of 14 majors. “He returned better than I did. Served better than I did. I struggled to find my rhythm.”

Facing a set point, Federer shanked a forehand 10 feet beyond the opposite baseline. He dumped overhead smashes into the net. He argued with the chair umpire about a call.

And in a truly rare ungraceful moment, he failed to put a racket to — or get out of the way of — a backhand flip by a sliding Tsonga, instead getting hit on the back.

Federer hadn’t lost in straight sets before the semifinals at any Grand Slam tournament since a third-round defeat against Gustavo Kuerten in the 2004 French Open.

Starting a month later, when he won Wimbledon, Federer began a stretch of nearly eight full years in which he was unbeaten in Grand Slam quarterfinals, reaching the semifinals at a record 23 major tournaments in a row. Since that run ended, though, quarterfinal exits are becoming a regular occurrence: He has lost at that stage in five of the past 13 Slams, twice to Tsonga, who was the runner-up at the 2008 Australian Open and is trying to give France its first men’s champion at Roland Garros since Yannick Noah 30 years ago.

“Everybody’s expecting a lot from me,” Tsonga said.

Tsonga’s first semifinal at Roland Garros will be against No. 4 David Ferrer, who stopped the wild ride of No. 32 Tommy Robredo 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 in an all-Spanish matchup. Robredo won each of his previous three matches despite dropping the first two sets, the first man since 1927 to do that a Grand Slam tournament.

“I wasn’t 100 percent ready to fight” on Tuesday after so many lengthy matches, Robredo said, adding: “And playing with a guy like David, who is a machine, it’s very tough to be like that.”

Ferrer reached his sixth major semifinal; he has yet to win one.

Noting that Tsonga so easily beat Federer, Ferrer said: “I was a bit surprised.”

Federer did, after all, reach 10 straight Grand Slam finals from 2005-07, winning eight titles. He also appeared in eight major finals from 2008-10, winning four. But since that run ended, Federer has played in two of the last 13 Slam title matches, winning one at Wimbledon last year.

Federer had won nine of his previous 12 matches against Tsonga. When they met at the net for a handshake after this one, Tsonga kiddingly thanked Federer for letting him win this time, and both men chuckled.

“Sports, it’s beautiful, because you can always do something. Even if you play, you know, the best player in the world ... you have a chance,” Tsonga said. “Because the guy in front of you (has) two legs, two arms, one head.”

Federer, now 31, certainly seems more human on a tennis court than he used to. This is the deepest he’s gone into a season without winning any tournament since 2000.

Now Tsonga will become the focus of so much attention, supported by thousands in the stands — and millions in their homes around France — hoping for a homegrown champion.

“He’s got a big game. He takes time away from you,” Federer said. “He can change defense to offense very quickly. Similar traits to what I have, I guess, really.”

Quite a compliment.

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