PARIS, June 4 – Roger Federer admits he's feeling the weight of history as a lifetime dream of finally lifting the French Open, and completing a career Grand Slam, inches tantalisingly closer.The Swiss superstar will play his 20th successive Grand Slam semi-final against Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro on Friday.
Victory there, and then a triumph in Sunday’s final against either Robin Soderling or Fernando Gonzalez, would give the world number two a first Roland Garros trophy to add to his five Wimbledon, five US Open and three Australian Open triumphs.
It would take him level on 14 Grand Slam titles with his great American friend Pete Sampras.
The 27-year-old Federer has been here before, of course, having been defeated in the last three finals by Rafael Nadal.
But the Spanish claycourt king was a shock last 16 casualty, while fellow rivals Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have also departed Paris.
Everybody here, including even the drivers and motorcyclists who pull up at red lights to grab a photo or an autograph, are confident that 2009 is Federer’s year.
"We’re all nervous," said Federer, who will take a 5-0 career record into his clash with Del Potro on Friday.
"I felt it again in the warm-up (for Wednesday’s 7-6 (8/6), 6-2, 6-4 quarter-final win over Gael Monfils). I was tired, I was nervous, and I didn’t feel really good.
"I was nervous going into that match because of the whole story of Nadal losing, Murray losing, Djokovic losing, maybe opening up the draw a little bit."
Only last month, many believed Federer would have struggled to get this far in Paris.
Many saw his tearful defeat to Nadal at the Australian Open, and then his early struggles in the claycourt season, as damning evidence that the game was up.
But Federer never lost faith in his ability to mount another charge at a title in Paris, a mission that proved beyond even Sampras.
The Swiss star’s win over Nadal in the Madrid final on the eve of Roland Garros gave him renewed hope.
"I thought I played great in Australia. I ran into Rafa who played phenomenal tennis," said Federer.
"I didn’t play that many tournaments. I had a back problem and I just had to get back into the tournament swing. That’s why I was actually pretty happy the way I’ve always been playing.
"I always knew there was no need to panic."
Federer has an impressive record against all the men left in the tournament.
Gonzalez, who tackles Soderling in Friday’s other semi-final, has one win in 13 matches against the Swiss master while Soderling is 0-9 and Del Potro, 0-5.
But Federer won’t underestimate 20-year-old Del Potro, one of the form players on the tour over the last 12 months having captured five titles.
"With a lot of confidence, a good game plan, good physique and a good mentality, you can go very far in tennis," said Federer.
"But it takes a lot of hard work, and that’s what he has done. I have a lot of respect for him."
Del Potro reached his first Grand Slam semi-final with a confident 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over experienced Spanish claycourter Tommy Robredo.
But even the Argentine admits that should he lose Friday, he’ll be backing the great man in Sunday’s final.
"Everybody wants Roger to win this tournament. If I can’t win, I want to see Roger with the trophy," said the fifth seed.
Friday’s second semi-final has already been reduced to a sideshow as 23rd seed Soderling, who put out Nadal, plays his first Grand Slam semi-final against Gonzalez, the 12th seeded Chilean who beat Murray.
Gonzalez won handsome praise from Murray after the pair’s last 16 clash.
"His forehand is the biggest in tennis," said the Briton.
Soderling, aiming to be the first Swede in the final here since his coach Magnus Norman lost to Gustavo Kuerten in 2000, is the tournament’s dangerman having followed up his defeat of Nadal with victory over 10th seed Nikolay Davydenko.
"If you’d ask me four years ago, I’d say I will never reach a semi in Paris," said Soderling.
"But for every year, I think I started to play better and better on clay."