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He has perfect timing

Federer outlasts Blake at Nasdaq

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- When tunesmith Johnny Green composed the ballad ''Out of Nowhere," and it appeared in the Broadway show, ''The Rose Tattoo," he couldn't have seen Roger Federer tattooing foes on a tennis court. That was 1955, and Federer didn't arrive on earth until 1981. But he would become the out-of-nowhere man.

It is an earth he owns in a sporting sense, and out-of-nowhere describes him perfectly. You can bang the ball beautifully as James Blake did last night, again and again, sending the rubber lemon to places well beyond anyone's reach, or belief, and . . .

And Federer swoops from out of nowhere to turn the point around, steal it, transforming himself from defense to offense instantly.

Make no mistake. The guy out of the Harvard Yard, James Blake, was threatening. Threatening all the way for 86 minutes as they jabbed and punched each other under the lights with every shot imaginable in a quarterfinal of the Nasdaq-100 Open. Two weeks before, Blake had been a thorn in Federer's side for the first 20 minutes, and a 4-1 lead, before losing the Indian Wells final in straight sets.

''I'm learning every time I play him," Blake says of his three losses in the asphalt classroom, flunking this one, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4. Barely. Not until Federer ripped a huge forehand on a second match point was the Swiss maestro assured that he had escaped Blake's assaults and the crowd of 12,169 baying at the moon and for his blood.

''It was tough to get hold of him," says Federer. ''But it was an important win for me. Important to back up the last win. You don't want to beat somebody in a final, and then lose to him the next time in the quarters."

That gives the other guy ideas, but as Blake's older brother, Tom, says, ''Federer's the only guy who can beat James now." A nice maybe.

Blake and Federer formed the piece de resistance of a sunny day that went against two of the favorites. ''Who's on first," the old Abbott and Costello shtick, seems to apply to the women in this young season. Three of them -- Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, and Amelie Mauresmo -- have momentarily graced the throne room at No. 1. Maybe it's a curse because Mauresmo, looking as though she'd taken Ambien -- asleep, yet playing -- was just the opponent Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova has been looking for. Kuznetsova, almost useless since winning the US Open of 2004, had tumbled to No. 14. Nevertheless, her heavy forehand blasts took out Mauresmo, 6-1, 6-4, putting Kuznetsova in tomorrow's final against countrywoman Maria Sharapova.

Then there was the staggering No. 4 Andy Roddick, looking a little better, sounding a little more confident, but outgunned by a nearly-24-year-old Spaniard to watch this year, David Ferrer, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. At least Roddick, suffering his sixth loss of the campaign, fell to a better class of adversary. In winning, the road-running man from Valencia replaced Andre Agassi at No. 10. Roddick's other defeats have been by nowhere guys.

Ferrer, though no relation to the great actor, Jose Ferrer, stuck his nose into Roddick's business forcefully as the thespian Ferrer did in his famous role as Cyrano de Bergerac. Ferrer's incredible returns took a lot of steam out of Roddick's thunderbolt serves.

But it will take a nose for a monumental upset if Ferrer is to get the better of the out-of-nowhere Federer in today's semis.

Blake gave his all, firing stronger and more accurate backhands than ever, resurrecting points with his tremendous speed, breaking Federer for a 3-2 lead in the first. Federer curiously bungled a routine volley to lose the game, and the customers went berserk. But this is what Federer does. He broke right back, and withstood Blake's attack in perhaps the most critical game of the match, the ninth.

''Frustrating" is Blake's definition of what happened. He pushed Federer to six deuces after being down, 40-0, pried out two break points -- only to see the resident champ appear from nowhere to cancel each with an untouchable winner. All this despite Federer missing 14 first serves.

Hopeful for the home gathering was the tiebreaker. Swiftly Federer was Federer -- all nasty business seizing the first five points.

Slashing a backhand on a sideline, Federer punctured Blake's serve and was off to a catch-me-if-you-can 2-0 lead. Blake couldn't.

Buoyed by incredible anticipation, Federer seems a mind reader. ''Wonderful dreams, wonderful schemes out of nowhere . . ." is one of Johnny Green's lyrics that fits Federer so well.

Anybody beating him deserves a choir singing another Green tune: ''Over the Rainbow."

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