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By Richard Pagliario


Tested to deuce for the first time all day on serve, Roger Federer surged forward and played match-maker kissing the sideline with backhand volley.


Slathered with side-spinning mischief, the shot sent screeching to a stop in front of his court-side seat before sticking his head in his red Wilson racquet bag like a man seeking reprieve.


Federer’s comeback win over Mischa Zverev on Wednesday was about putting rubber to the road in his first match in nearly three months.


Today, Federer shifted fluidly through gears of his game roaring past Pella, 6-4, 6-4, into the Stuttgart semifinals—and moving to within one win of regaining world No. 1.


The second-ranked Swiss will face either fourth-seeded Nick Kyrgios or Feliciano Lopez for a spot in Sunday’s final.


If Federer prevails in tomorrow’s semifinals, he will surpass rival Rafael Nadal and regain the top spot four months after becoming the oldest world No. 1 in ATP history.


“Two big servers,” Federer said. “Feliciano, I know him since 1996. We played European championships under 16 so we go way, way back. We played many, many times times on tour. On the grass, he’s always a tough challenge.


“Nick of course is a great talent. We know what he can do on the grass, on any surface, really. I hope for a good match against either one.”


The top-seeded Swiss permitted just six points on his first serve and denied the only pair of break points he faced in his final service game stretching his grass-court winning streak to 14 matches.


The 36-year-old Federer improved to 19-2 on the season reaching his second Mercedes Cup semifinal.


On a sun-splashed ideal day for play, a packed Stuttgart crowd so enthused by Federer’s presence they erupted in the wave during the warm-up.


“I’m happy I made it,” Federer said. “I think I played good, free attacking tennis. Beautiful day here in Stuttgart so it was good fun.”


Facing a lefty for the third time this season, Federer flashed his variety firing through three consecutive love holds to open.


The 75th-ranked Pella doesn’t serve big, but he can effectively apply the slider serve as a set-up shot. A slice serve wide set up a fine low backhand volley as the Argentinian capped a love hold in the third game.


One reason why the eight-time Wimbledon champion remains the game’s premier grass-court player is Federer’s prescience recognizing the mid-court ball and sharpness exploiting it.


Dotting the sideline with a backhand drive, Federer streamed forward for a forehand drop volley in the fifth game. A forehand strike down the line earned the Swiss break point, but Pella denied it working through a tough hold for 3-2.


The top seed downshifted into a higher gear rolling through seven straight points midway through the set.


Picking on Pella’s backhand, Federer lifted a backhand pass down the line for triple break point. Drilling a diagonal forehand inside the sideline, Federer broke for 4-3.


Breezing through 16 of his first 17 points on serve, Federer stamped a decisive hold backing up the break in the eighth game.


Closing the set with command, Federer scooped successive forehand volley winners then dislodged a puff of white paste from the center stripe with his second ace.


Federer won 20 of 21 points played on his serve stamping four love holds in five serve games to snatch a one-set lead in a half an hour.


Volleying with depth and angle, Federer’s frontcourt flights earned him double break point in the first game of the second set. Lasering a forehand winner down the line, Federer earned his second break.


Showing some grit in the face of a steamrolling opponent, Pella pounced on a backhand pass then pumped an ace stopping a three-game slide for 1-2.


The only real obstacles for Federer came in his final two service games. Tested in a deuce hold for 5-3, Federer faced double break point serving for the match.


The top seed denied both, then fired his fourth ace for match point.


Moving up quickly to a mid-court ball that skimmed the tape, Federer angled off a backhand winner closing in 65 minutes.


“Any match that you win is a good match because you get another chance,” Federer said.


Earlier today, Milos Raonic ripped 24 aces edging third-seeded Tomas Berdych, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (1).


The Czech wild card did not face break point in the match and posted six love holds compared to five for Raonic.


Holding a 4-2 lead in the opening tie break, Raonic smoked a forehand return winner for the mini-break then blasted successive aces for a one-set lead.


“I got a few good returns in the tie break,” Raonic said. “I got a little bit lucky, but I’m happy how I competed.”


The seventh-seeded Canadian will play defending champion Lucas Pouille for a place in Sunday’s final.

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