NEW YORK -- Even as Roger Federer was inefficiently -- for him -- winning his 42nd of 43 hardcourt matches this season, the focus at the U.S. Open yesterday was on the three Americans left in the draw -- 35-year-old Andre Agassi and his two younger compatriots, James Blake and Robby Ginepri.
It was interesting that, despite Federer's continuing dominance, Agassi and Blake, who will play each other today, and Ginepri, who will face Guillermo Coria of Argentina, could command such attention on their day off.
But then, this is the U.S. Open, a tournament desperate for a backup to icon Andy Roddick, who was shockingly upset in the first round.
It was not Federer's best day of the Open as he made a series of uncharacteristic errors with his ground strokes against Nicolas Kiefer in their round-of-16 match.
But in the decisive game in the third set, he defended two break points in classic Federer fashion, and from there made his way with ease to a 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4 victory that sends him tomorrow against David Nalbandian of Argentina, a 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-2 victor over Italian Davide Sanguinetti.
Also in the top half of the draw yesterday, No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt defeated 15th-seeded Dominik Hrbaty, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, and, in a battle of unseeded players, Jarkko Nieminen became the first Finn to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal by beating Fernando Verdasco, 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-3.
Kiefer's speed and service had Federer groping for a way out of the match and he was on the edge of serious situation facing two break points at 3-3 in the third.
But he hit a 125-mph service winner and followed with a spectacular backhand crosscourt passing shot to ward off danger.
While the upper half of the draw was completing the round of 16, Blake, Agassi and Ginepri were using one-hour training sessions yesterday to keep their edge going into today's matches.
It's been an American lovefest the last two days, with Agassi paying great respect to Blake for overcoming last year's cracked vertebrae, vision problems and the death of his father, and Ginepri praising his friend, as well.
"We've been texting each other this week and talking the whole summer," said Ginepri, who late Monday night won his second successive five-set match.
"He wrote me after I won Indianapolis, telling me, 'Great job.' And after he won New Haven, I told him he played great. We're standing by each other.
"I told James, 'Let's take it to the top, push each other.' With the feelings I've been having inside the last month, it's tough to share it with someone, but I know James is going through the same thing and I can't think of anyone I'd rather share it with."
Ginepri was only 9-13 after his failure at Wimbledon. He's 19-4 since. Blake was only 14-13 following Wimbledon. He's 15-5 since.
Agassi has the experience in this quarterfinal, but Blake has the power, and his key will be to continue playing with patience. Gone for both he and Ginepri are the impetuous shots -- looking for winners off low-percentage positions on the court -- and that, more than anything else, is why they've had personal-best performances here.
Blake is well-rested and Ginepri, despite two straight long matches, said he feels fine; neither of his matches went over three hours and he has the added edge of not feeling the pressure of playing another American in front of what will be a wildly cheering audience on the Arthur Ashe court.
Women's top seed Maria Sharapova also yielded a set for the first time in the tournament before beating fellow Russian Nadia Petrova, the ninth seed, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, to reach the semifinals against the winner of the Venus Williams-Kim Clijsters match.
Sharapova won her first four matches in an average of 59 minutes. Against Petrova, each of the first two sets took almost as long, and the match ran 2 1/2 hours before Sharapova, shrieking on nearly every point, ended it with a break in the final game on a lunging backhand return that Petrova couldn't handle.
"Wow! It's absolutely amazing, I can't believe I pulled this match out today," said Sharapova, who lost in the third round last year and in the second round in her first U.S. Open two years ago.
"So many ups and downs. ... I just found a way to fight. A lot of credit to Nadia. She played an amazing match.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this story.