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.'