PARIS — Fresh off a ragged, rugged, five-set French Open semifinal victory Friday, Roger Federer was leaving for the night when a dozen or so fans drew his attention.
They wanted photos and autographs, and Federer obliged, signing hats, a poster, even one guy's white polo shirt. As Federer ambled off, a man shouted: "Win on Sunday! Please!"
Pausing for a moment before sliding into a car, Federer turned and, with a quick wave of his skilled right arm, replied, "OK." Ah, if only it were that simple. For all his accomplishments, for all his trophies and records, Federer now wants _ needs? _ to do something he never has: win a final at Roland Garros.
By coming back to beat No. 5-seeded Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina 3-6, 7-6 (2), 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, Federer moved within one victory of his first French Open championship _ and of so much more.
If he can beat No. 23 Robin Soderling of Sweden on Sunday, Federer also will tie Pete Sampras' career mark of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. And he will become only the sixth man with a career Grand Slam, at least one title from each of tennis' four majors.
"There's still one more step," Federer said.
He's come exactly this close in the past, losing each of the past three French Open finals to Rafael Nadal, along with a semifinal four years ago. But this time, Nadal is not around to torment him, having been stunned by Soderling in the fourth round.
"Obviously," Federer said, "it's nice to see someone else for a change."
Since the start of the 2005 French Open, Federer is 0-4 against Nadal at Roland Garros, 29-0 against everyone else. Similarly, over the course of his career, Federer is 2-5 against Nadal in Grand Slam finals, 11-0 against all other opponents.
Federer just so happens to have a 9-0 career record against Soderling, who will be playing in his first Grand Slam final. He'd never been past the third round in 21 previous majors but reeled off the last five games of a 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 victory over No. 12 Fernando Gonzalez of Chile in Friday's first semifinal.
Does Soderling believe he has a chance against Federer?
"He's going to be the favorite, by far," the big-serving Soderling said. "But I think Nadal was the favorite against me as well."
Soderling's first Grand Slam championship match will be Federer's 19th, matching Ivan Lendl's record, and the Swiss star's 15th in the past 16 major tournaments.
Then again, Federer held similar edges in experience and head-to-head matchups against del Potro, a 20-year-old playing in his first major semifinal. Federer was in his 20th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal _ double the second-longest streak any man compiled _ and had won all 12 previous sets across five matches with del Potro.
Yet early on, the 6-foot-6 del Potro played fantastically, using his long legs to speed around the court and his long arms to whip winners punctuated by loud grunts.
"He came out of the blocks really strong," Federer said.
Federer did not, even slapping himself in the face after one poorly executed point. Five miscues by a suddenly tight del Potro in the tiebreaker ceded the second set, and it took Federer 2 1/2 hours to convert a break point.
When he did, it put Federer ahead 3-1 in the fourth set and really got him going. He broke del Potro twice more to level things at two sets apiece.
"A five-set match is a test," Federer said.
The light was fading, the wind was swirling, and the temperature dipped below 60 degrees. Not surprisingly, Federer dealt with the conditions better than del Potro.
"That match escaped me," a subdued del Potro said. "I really wanted to be in that final, and now I'm going to have to watch it on TV."
After double-faulting to hand Federer a 4-3 lead, del Potro trudged to the sideline with head bowed, while many spectators rose to yell, applaud and serenade their man: "Roh-zher! Roh-zher!"
Three games later, Federer served it out, closing with consecutive forehand winners. He whirled around and glanced at the guest box _ at his pregnant wife, at his parents, at pal Anna Wintour, Vogue's editor-in-chief _ then walked to the net, placed both hands on the tape and leaned over, looking at the clay court that has bedeviled him in the past.
Surely he was thinking: One more to go. One more to go.
"It feels great coming through tough matches like this," said Federer, who also needed five sets to get past Tommy Haas in the fourth round. "It's more emotional. It's more satisfaction."
Del Potro threw an arm around Federer and told him, "Everybody wants you to lift the trophy."
Well, certainly not Soderling. He and Gonzalez both were in their first French Open semifinal, and you could tell.
At the outset, Gonzalez's game was as shaky as his voice had been during a prematch TV interview. Soderling seemed tense, too, facing three break points over his first two service games.
But then Soderling began looking a lot more like the man who upset Nadal, winning 31 of the next 38 points on his serve. When Soderling eventually faced another break point, in the second set's 10th game, he smacked a 133 mph ace.
Down 2-0 in sets, Gonzalez did not wilt. Instead, Soderling faltered, getting broken in the last game of each of the next two sets. In the fourth, Gonzalez lost an argument over a line call and sat on the court to wipe away the shot's mark in the clay, leaving the back of his black shorts smeared with dirt.
Gonzalez went up 3-0, then 4-1 in the fifth set, and would say: "I really thought I was going to win."
Turned out he wouldn't win another game.
"Didn't look good," Soderling said. "I just tried harder, and all of a sudden, it all worked again."
Sounds easy enough. With six-time French Open champion Bjorn Borg, a fellow Swede, watching from the front row, Soderling hit one last forehand winner _ his 31st _ to stretch his career-best winning streak to nine matches. Soderling dropped to his knees and folded his body forward, covering his face with both fists.
"The way he came through today was impressive," Federer said. "He's playing the tennis of his life."
Asked if he'll miss seeing Nadal across the net Sunday, Federer smiled.
"No," he answered. "Not really."