Australian Open 2017: Ageless Roger Federer flows to quarters with 200th top-10 win

Roger Federer reaches the quarter-finals of the Australian Open with a thrilling five-set win over Kei Nishikori

There is always a steep curve in anticipation levels as the new year races to Melbourne for the first Grand Slam of the year.

But it is probably fair to say that the anticipation ahead of this year’s Australian Open was even higher than usual.

For a start, the tournament welcomed back all the ‘big four’ into a Grand Slam draw for the first time since last January. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, after extended injury breaks, again joined No1 Andy Murray and No2 Novak Djokovic—though the seeding scenario was entirely unfamiliar: Federer at 17 and Nadal at nine.

In particular, though, tennis aficionados were keen to see whether Federer was still a genuine contender after such a long lay-off. His absence had been gnawing a hole in the schedules, and even his website went off-line for the duration of the six-month rehab since he reached the semis at Wimbledon last July.

No matter that he assured interviewers that he was improving fast, training hard, and eager to return: doomy statistics continued to dog his absence.

After playing just seven events in 2016, Federer had dropped from No3 to No17 in the rankings, and in failing to defend his final points in Brisbane, he was destined to fall outside the top 30 unless he went some way to emulating his semi finish in Melbourne—a ranking he had not seen since October 2000.

Not since he was seeded No11 in Australia in 2002 had the four-time champion been outside the top 16, where he would be exposed to a top-16 player in Round 3 and a top-eight man in Round 4.

He had not missed playing a Major in a run of 65—until Roland Garros last year—nor missed qualifying for the World Tour Finals since 2001.

And with the draw throwing Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori, both of whom had beaten Federer in the past, into those early third- and fourth-round slots, it looked as though a few other ‘first time since…’ lines may be crossed for the rusty Swiss this week, especially after a couple of less-than-convincing matches against qualifiers.

Federer himself played down his expectations of any real advance so soon into his return: He was, he asserted, happy simply to be in the draw and playing.

But cometh the hour, cometh the man.

With some match-practice—and confidence—in his body, he blasted past Berdych in a mere hour and a half. The 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 scoreline was eloquent: Berdych shrugged, coach Goran Ivanisevic rolled his eyes in disbelieve, commentators Mats Wilander and Greg Rusedski ran out of superlatives, and Federer was beaming ear to ear.

If more proof was needed that Federer was ready to roll, the stats spoke volumes: 95 percent of first serve points won, 40 winners to 17 errors, and 20 points from 23 net plays.

The fourth round, though, promised a bigger test. No5 seed Nishikori was playing big-time tennis. Along with two previous wins over Federer, he scored wins over Murray, Nadal and Stan Wawrinka last season.

Federer, a fan of Nishikori’s brand of tennis, was suitably wary, and that wariness looked justified in the early goings. Inside a quarter of an hour, Federer was 0-4 down, and Nishikori served for the set at 5-2. The No5 seed, though, wavered, and with Federer already beginning to time the ball better, the Swiss broke, held to love for the second consecutive time, and broke again.

The arena erupted as the famed one-handed backhand—always the target of opponents—fired winners down the line, cross-court, to a depth off the ground and to an angle from the air.

Nishikori regathered himself, though. In the tie-break, he produced dynamic tennis with pace and penetration, doing unto Federer what the Swiss so often does to adversaries: stealing time, forcing errors and stamping his authority on the set, 7-6(4).

It did not bode well for the long-absent 35-year-old. So much effort, no reward, and the prospect of at least four sets to stay alive.

Now the Federer from Round 3 emerged with a vengeance: He broke in the seventh game of the second set, held to love, and served it out, 6-4.

And if that was not impressive enough, the third set upped the level further: Nishikori won the opening game and lost the next six. Both men stepped into the baseline, both served at 70 percent, both ran like demons, but Federer’s finishing was near-flawless.

The Swiss opened the fourth set in similar vein, holding court in super-fast exchanges and ready for the kill in the fourth game. Seven deuces and two break points came and went in a flurry of winners—one a crowd-pleasing backhand around the post from Federer—but Nishikori was up to the task and held his 10-minute service game. He promptly broke in the next, and although Federer did not drop a point in his next two service games, Nishikori served it out to love, 6-4.

So now the ultimate test of the fitness—mental and physical—of Federer: a fifth set. And he passed the test with flying colours in a blaze of fine rallies. A quick break and a 3-0 lead was too much for Nishikori, despite a medical time-out mid-set, and Federer served out the win to love, 6-3, after almost three and half hours.

Federer is not a demonstrative victor on a tennis court, but this one meant the world. He jumped and roared and threw back his head in delight, and he had good reason.

The often-critical John McEnroe purred over Federer’s shot-making, movement and intensity, and once again the stats burnished the win: 83 winners to 47 errors, 29 points won at the net, 80 percent of first serve points won… and as if that is not enough to worry his next opponents, Federer’s confidence will be:

“Yeah, I think I’m playing better and better. Today over a long period of time, I had to be refocused and playing good tennis. I served exceptionally well tonight, which was key against Nishikori. Rhythm from the baseline is there now. I don’t get surprised any more from the power or the pace.

“I felt great in the fifth, I must say. Great energy. Even deep into the fourth I thought, Yeah, fifth, here we go, no problem for me. I’m feeling good about my chances. I was playing positive tennis, I was playing offensive. My body was reacting. I was playing way better than the first couple of rounds.”

Before the tournament, it was perhaps only Federer’s most ardent supporters who thought he could survive the tough road to the quarters. Should he do so, few gave him much chance of going further: Murray stood in the way. But all that also changed: The world No1 lost out to the unlikely serve-and-volley left-hander, Mischa Zverev. And suddenly, Federer’s prospect of matching last year’s semi run is a decent bet.

We began with a tally of the ‘first time since…’ events during the year since Melbourne 2016. It is worth closing with a look through the other end of the telescope.

– This is Federer’s 69th Major—just one short of the Open record.

– He is into his 49th Major quarter-final, extending his own record. Jimmy Connors is next with 41.

– This will be his 13th Australian quarter-final—also an Open record. Stefan Edberg is second with 10.

– He is up to 84 match-wins in the tournament, equalling his tally at Wimbledon: another Open record.

– This is his 311th Grand Slam match-win, a record.

– And victory over Berdych and Nishikori takes Federer to 200 top-10 victories—the first active player to do so.

It is early days, of course: Wawrinka looms at the semi stage, Milos Raonic and that other returner, Nadal, in the other half. But it is beginning to look as though anticipation levels are set to rise further yet.

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