Australian Open 2016: Big-time Federer and Sharapova burst through 300 and 600 barriers

It was a day of records for Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open on Friday

Two of the biggest and brightest stars in the tennis firmament, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova, brought some sunshine to a wet Australian Open on Friday afternoon.

Within three hours of each other, on the biggest stage in Australian tennis, Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena, the highest-earning tennis players in the men’s and women’s game both broke through two rather special barriers

The women’s No5 seed and 2008 champion Sharapova dropped her first set of this year’s tournament, but her 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-0 victory over Lauren Davis marked her 600th match-win, a figure that only 16 other women have ever reached.

Sharapova joins just three fellow players in the draw who have done so: Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Jelena Jankovic, but her achievement is all the more impressive for being achieved at the age of 28, and having missed countless tournaments with injury since bursting onto the scene as a teenager to win Wimbledon in 2004.

And Sharapova will surely overtake the 30-year-old Jankovic, who stands just a dozen or so wins ahead, though both the Williams will prove a bigger challenge: Each is well over 100 match-wins ahead.

Sharapova looked non-plussed by the news of her milestone after her see-sawing two-and-a-quarter-hours match: “Oh, wow, I’ve won 600 matches? Oh boy. Is this like a friendly reminder that I’m getting older?”

However, while the tall Russian had an injury worry ahead of the Open, forcing her to withdraw from the defence of her Brisbane title, Sharapova has looked anything but old. She dropped only four games in her first match, three in the second and, aside from an unexpected aberration in the second set against Davis, lost only one today.

She was on course, it seemed, to take little more than an hour to seal this match, and 26 minutes produced 12 winners for only four errors, with two breaks.

But she lost her way in the second after going a break up, making repeated errors—33—to let Davis back in the match. She then regrouped fast in the third set to regain her rhythm with some near-flawless serving—she missed only two first serves from 16 and lost only three points in total on serve. She broke three times to march on to a first meeting with a young woman who has the makings of a great champion in her own right.

At 18, No12 seed Belinda Bencic is a full decade younger than Sharapova, and the No5 seed, who faces the prospect of her nemesis Serena Williams in the quarters if she beats Bencic, was only too aware of the threat posed by the teenage Swiss:
“That’s going to be a tough one. She’s an inspired young player who’s been playing incredibly well for the last season. I’m just glad to be in the fourth round; I have a great opponent on the other side and I’m going to do everything to try and win that match.”

Unlike Sharapova, who has lost to Williams in their last 17 matches, Bencic beat the No1 seed in Toronto last year. So both the young and not-so-young opponents in Round 4, will have a great incentive to reach a Williams showdown.

Next onto court was Federer, hoping to extend one of the countless records he already has to his name. In men’s Grand Slam tennis in particular, he has left players current and past in his rear-view mirror: Most Grand Slam titles, 17, finals, 27, semi-finals, 38, and quarter-finals, 46; Most consecutive Grand Slam appearances, 65; most Grand Slam match-wins—the one he has been extending since he overtook Jimmy Connors’ 233 in 2012.

Now Federer began his 17th straight Australian Open with 297 Major match-wins, a record 75 of them at this very tournament. His two straightforward opening wins thus brought him to the cusp of a neat 300, and like Sharapova’s next match, he faced one of the leading lights of the next generation. The former top-10 Grigor Dimitrov is a decade younger than the man whose elegant all-court game has been a model for his own.

Sure enough, the contest proved to be a crowd-pleaser, packed with shot-winning plays, plenty of net attack, and enough variety of touch, angle, and pace to please all tastes.

Federer took the opening set, 6-4, in around three-quarters of an hour with just one break in the seventh game, as the one-handed backhands fought it out: Federer making two winners, Dimitrov conceding with an error on that wing.

But the Bulgarian upped the pace and aggression in the second, and almost broke Federer in the second game. The Swiss, though, handed him the break to love with three wayward forehands in the fourth, and after 39 minutes and 18 errors from Federer, Dimitrov levelled, 6-3.

Federer, however, regrouped fast, broke to 15 in the second game, and a string of errors in the sixth gave the Swiss another break. Serving for the set, he then won four points in a row to stave off two break-back points, 6-1.

A break to Federer in the fifth game of the fourth was enough to seal win No300, and playing as aggressive and forward-moving tennis as at any time in his career: 29 points from 40 net plays in this match alone.

Whether the Swiss super-star can make it 301 will depend on No15 seed David Goffin, who has a game that has caught Federer’s eye before: The 25-year-old Belgian took Federer to three sets in Basel last autumn, and looked in fine form in beating the very talented No19 seed Dominic Thiem.

In this tough section of the draw, Federer could then face No6 seed Tomas Berdych and, if he is to move along several of those Grand Slam records still further, the ultimate test in tennis today, No1 Novak Djokovic, in the semis.

For now, he can sit back and enjoy No300, just as he did after match-win No1000 in Australia a year ago: “It’s very exciting, I must tell you. Like when I reached 1000 last year, it was a big deal for me. Not something I ever aimed for or looked for, but when it happens, it’s very special. You look deeper into it, where it’s all happened and how. So it’s very nice. I’m very happy.”

With No300, Federer has overtaken Chris Evert’s 299 and only one player, man or woman, remains ahead of him: Martina Navratilova won 306 Grand Slam matches, and while Federer cannot reach that in Australia, one suspects, come the summer, he will add one more record to his resume, too.

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