The scoreboard showed Roger Federer soaring above the Khalifa Tennis Complex, as highlights of his greatest hits accompanied his entrance on court for today's Doha quarterfinal. Andreas Seppi needed no replay reminder of the 16-time Grand Slam champion's virtuosity. Winless in 15 career sets against Federer, Seppi's streak of futility was as clear as the Fila logo on his backwards baseball cap.
For once, the Italian flipped the script to force a decisive set. But driving first serve darts into the corners to set up his forehand, Federer restored order to a rivalry he's dominated in scoring a choppy, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 victory to extend his winning streak to 20 matches.
It wasn't exactly vintage Federer today. The second-seeded Swiss played a few loose service games, lost his range for a stretch of the second set, and didn't exploit opportunities to attack the net when he pushed the Italian out of position. Federer overcame periods of patchy play with some shrewd situational serving: He won 16 of 18 points played on his first serve, and erased two break points serving at 4-3 in the decider.
"It was tough," Federer told Robbie Koenig afterward. "I started well. I was able to take control of variation and aggressive play. Second set, he definitely started to hit the ball better... I'm relieved to be in the semis."
The 38th-ranked Seppi is a consistent counter-puncher whose two-handed backhand is his best shot. He's more comfortable waiting for something to happen rather than creating his own opportunities, but Seppi picked up the pace on his first serve and began to drive his backhand down the line to punctuate points in surging out to a 5-1 second-set lead. Some of Federer's woes were self-inflicted, as he slapped shots into the net as if trying to create closure too quickly.
While he will never conjure comparisons to Andre Agassi with his return, Seppi surprisingly broke Federer three times in the 41-minute second set, despite the Swiss hitting seven aces and serving 69 percent. Federer flicked a defensive slice backhand to buy time, then blistered a ball at Seppi's feet to break back for 4-5, prompting the lanky Italian's eyebrows to arch up like accent marks at the shot. Federer held for 5-all, but Seppi won nine of the next 11 points to level the match.
Rod Laver once said that when he lost his range, he'd purposely hit almost as hard as he could down the middle to loosen up his arm, while giving himself plenty of margin for error. Federer regained his range by taking the first stike and using his variety of spins and speeds to keep Seppi off balance.
Swinging with ambition, Federer attacked behind a forehand, coaxing an errant backhand pass to break at 30 for a 2-1 edge in the decider. Not long after, Federer fired an inside-out forehand winner to seal the win and set up a blockbuster semifinal with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whom he beat in the Paris and London finals last fall.