Australian Open 2012: Federer into semi-finals after 1,000th match

Roger Federer sets up semi-final showdown with Rafael Nadal after his 6-4 6-3 6-2 victory over Juan Martin del Potro

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Roger Federer faces Rafael Nadal for a place in the final Photo: Mirsasha, via Flickr

roger federer

Roger Federer had played Juan Martin del Potro at the Australian Open once before. It was 2009, the year that the towering talent from Argentina broke into the top four and won his first Grand Slam.

Then, as now, they met in the quarter-finals in a match that would imprint itself on the memories of all who saw it. For after only 80 minutes, del Potro found himself back in the locker-room, the victim of one of his most decisive defeats, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0, by a man playing with what might as well have been a magic wand.

Sometimes it happens that way with Federer. Sometimes he finds ‘the zone’ where his multi-hued palette can paint the perfect picture. He came close to it against Rafael Nadal at the World Tour Finals: 60 minutes, 6-3, 6-0. He came close again in playing the talented Bernard Tomic two days ago: around 100 minutes of calm, focused, precise tennis that left his young opponent shaking his head in disbelief.

And so to del Potro and this year’s replay of that 2009 Australian quarter-final.

With the Argentine back to No11 in the world and finding better form with each round in Melbourne—he lost only 21 games in his last three straight-sets wins—it was billed as Federer’s toughest test of the tournament so far.

But fewer than two hours later, Federer had packed away his brushes, complimented his opponent and departed from the Rod Laver arena with another of those pitch-perfect performances saved for the archives.

Under scorching skies, Federer struck with an early break in the first set and, although del Potro broke back, Federer cut through his opponent’s serve again, with renowned Swiss timing, to take the set 6-4.

It was the same story in the second set. Federer attacked del Potro’s serve in the fourth game and swept to a 5-3 lead. There was a moment’s hesitation—the only slight loss of focus in the match—while Federer defended four break points. The last one, saved with one of the longest rallies of the match, drew an almighty roar from the Swiss chest. He sensed it was a killer blow, sealed the set 6-3 and quickly broke in the third set, too.

Del Potro looked increasingly frustrated as Federer manipulated him around the court with sweeping forehands down the line, cross-court backhand angles and one dream shot on a further break point at 4-2, a return of serve caressed away by the backhand for a drop-shot winner. It was as stealthy as a stiletto blade through the ribs.

There have been times in the last year or so when Federer has faltered at the winning post and left an opening for his opponent to hit back. On this occasion, there seemed little doubt that he would simply serve out the set, and he did so with panache, in the shape of a crisp backhand winner. For here, as in London, he seems to have regained the calm assurance for which he was always renowned.

Federer talked about the mental aspect of his game after winning the World Tour Finals, the culmination of an unbroken run of three titles since losing the semi-final at the US Open when serving for the match.

“I feel when [I lose close matches] maybe that often, I do have to question myself that maybe I did something wrong…that was also one of the reasons why I did take some time off, to think it through, get into the right mental mindset…The doubts were just a bit too strong during certain important moments. I think I didn’t have those doubts now for the remainder of the season.”

If his latest match in Melbourne is any guide, his mental state and his physical form are still in very fine order. Against del Potro, he was rarely diverted from the task at hand. His eye was in, his rhythm was metronome-steady, his movement silky. He dropped only five points on his first serve in the match and failed to reach only five of del Potro’s big first deliveries.

Indeed the Argentine won barely half of the points on his own first or second serve. That’s how tuned in Federer was to his opponent’s tennis.

The next round—Federer’s ninth consecutive semi-final at the Australian—will be more demanding.

He faces a 27th meeting with his nemesis, Nadal. The last time the two met in the semi of a Grand Slam was at Roland Garros in 2005, and Nadal won. The last time they met in Melbourne, Nadal also won in an emotionally-charged five-set final.

If Federer’s opponent turns out to be Tomas Berdych, that too will be difficult. They also met in the 2009 Australian Open and Federer had to fight back from a two-set deficit in a three-and-a-half-hour thriller. The last time they met in a Grand Slam was at the 2010 Wimbledon: Berdych won their four-set quarter-final. They shared the honours in their two 2011 Masters encounters.

Today’s win happened to be Federer’s 1,000th match, though that barely seemed to raise a Swiss eyebrow.

It took him to a 30th Grand Slam semi-final—just one behind Jimmy Connors’ record 31.

It took him to 232 Grand Slam match wins—equal to Jimmy Connors’ record—and one step closer to an Open era record fifth Australian title.

Each statistic comes and goes with little reaction from the man himself: “Well, 1,000 matches, not 1,000 wins: Big difference. Eventually, I will forget which one was my 1,000th. Either I have been around for a long time or I’m extremely fit – you decide.”

As for winning his 2,000th set, which he also did in this match: “Yeah, a lot of milestones. A roadrunner.”

He was altogether more animated about the former greats of Australian tennis who have turned up to watch. Rod Laver arrived today and Roy Emerson—winner of the most Australian singles titles beyond the Open era—sat courtside, bathed in smiles.

“I love it when former greats come out and watch us play. I saw Roy Emerson today sitting there all of a sudden. I said, Oh that’s nice to see you, but I didn’t say that and I didn’t acknowledge him because I’m pretending to be focused, right?”

It only goes to show that, serene as the on-court demeanour may be, Federer is as diverted by his surroundings—especially such starry diversions as they—along with the rest of us.

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