PARIS - There have been times this year when Roger Federer's cloak of infallibility slid from his shoulders, when his absolute dominance against anyone but Rafael Nadal and at any tournament but the French Open wasn't quite so absolute.
Federer arrived at Roland Garros with one title, his lowest count since 2001. He arrived with seven losses, more than his total for any of the previous three entire seasons.
And so it was yesterday that for the first set of his French Open quarterfinal against 24th-seeded Fernando Gonzalez, Federer looked, well, human. His serve was broken three times. He shanked shots. He was, by his own admission, "a little bit rattled."
Still, as he's done so many times, Federer adjusted and regrouped, beating Gonzalez 2-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 to extend his own record by reaching a 16th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal. Federer moved two wins away from completing a career Slam and earning his 13th major championship, which would leave him one shy of Pete Sampras' mark.
"At one stage, I was a bit afraid," the No. 1-ranked Federer said, "because the match was not going the way I wanted."
In addition to his opening-set lapse, Federer fell behind love-40 while serving to begin the third. Given a chance to pull ahead again, Gonzalez missed two relatively easy shots before Federer won a 13-stroke exchange to account for the third break point. Thus began this amazing stretch: Federer won 36 of the last 40 points on his serve, including each of the final 17.
Impressive as it was, Federer's turnaround had nothing on the one fashioned yesterday by No. 13-seeded Dinara Safina in the women's quarterfinals. The younger sister of two-time major champion Marat Safin trailed No. 7 Elena Dementieva by a set and 5-2 in the second, then was one point from losing at 5-3, before coming all the way back to win 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-0.
The deficit was identical to the one faced by Safina a round earlier, when she trailed by a set and 5-2 in the second, and erased a match point at 5-3, en route to upsetting No. 1 Maria Sharapova.
"Once you went through this," Safina said, "you always believe: 'Why not the second time?' " *