Australian Open 2017

Australian Open 2017: Emotional Federer admits ‘it’s beautiful’ after surviving Wawrinka test

Roger Federer reaches his 28th Grand Slam final after a five-set victory over Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open

One of Australia’s favourite sons, Rod Laver, the most prolific winner of tennis titles in men’s tennis as well as the owner of two calendar Grand Slams, beamed down on the arena that bears his name, as he has done almost every evening during this extraordinary Australian Open.

Tonight, though, was a special one. Tennis took a back seat for half an hour to celebrate Australia Day. There were, of course, fireworks, but there was also a chunk of gold around the modest Laver’s neck, the medal of the Companion of Honour of Australia.

Laver has made no secret over the years of his admiration for the tennis of Roger Federer and for the man himself. Before this year’s tournament, he admitted that he hoped the Swiss star could play for another three years, but even Laver gave only qualified support for a strong run at this year’s Open:
“If he gets a good draw and finds himself not playing long, long matches to push into his fitness, then he could be dangerous.”

Qualified, because Federer was playing his first tournament since Wimbledon 2016, a year during which he managed only seven events after knee surgery 12 months ago. And although he got a break in the early rounds of the draw—two qualifiers—the road to the semis, let alone the final, was steep and stony: Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, and the victor over Andy Murray, Mischa Zverev.

One of those did indeed go to five sets, but Federer confounded fans and opponents alike with his fine attacking tennis, and in the blink of an eye, he was back in the semi-finals, his 13th in Australia and his 41st in Grand Slam play.

At 35 years old, it makes him the oldest to reach a Major semi since Jimmy Connors in 1978. Should he reach the final, he would be oldest man to do so in a Major since Ken Rosewall in 1974. But while Federer had avoided the early-falling No1 seed, he now faced one the favourites for the title, the 2014 champion and reigning US Open champion, Stan Wawrinka.

Compatriots Federer and Wawrinka have been friends through more than a decade together on the tour, but the younger Wawrinka, seeded No4, had saved his best for last to win his three Majors in the last three years. This powerhouse of a man, who boasts in his single-handed backhand one of the finest shots in tennis, once suffered under the weight of Federer’s records and reputation: Not so now.

In the early goings of their 22nd meeting, Federer took a while to prove his credentials, especially on serve, which is the key to his attacking, forward-moving game.

Indeed it was a Federer backhand, a less penetrating but more flexible single-handed weapon than Wawrinka’s, that produced a silky winner to hold the opening game.

Not that Wawrinka would be put in the shade: a couple of aces and a backhand winner, and he too held with ease.

By mid-set, Federer had begun to break out his serve-and-volley play, but it was hard going with just half his first serves finding their mark. And Wawrinka was looking sharp: He snuffed out a 0-40 deficit with some fine serving and strong one-two plays, and turned the attack on Federer’s tight serve with some aggressive returning.

Federer also had to fend off a break point, but the battle was now engaged in earnest. Even at their high pace, it took half an hour to reach 4-3 via some exhilarating rallies and not a little tension. Wawrinka was serving the better, and Federer had to face down another break-point scare. But then he drew errors in a couple of backhand exchanges for a break point—this time set-point—and grabbed it, 7-5.

It had taken 50 minutes, and Federer had managed just one ace and an uncharacteristic winner-to-error deficit that would endure through the entire match, 47-50.

Federer had not managed a single love hold, and Wawrinka continued to read his opponent’s serve well, but it was the younger man’s serve that came under pressure first in the sixth game, courtesy of some line-painting strikes from Federer. Wawrinka was broken, as was his racket, 2-4. Two strong Federer holds, and the four-time champion had the set, 6-3.

Now, though, the momentum was to take a sudden turn. Wawrinka, who had sported a knee support in previous matches, called an off-court medical time out and returned with the strapping back in place.

He began the third set tentatively, and Federer had his chances to break through, but failed to capitalise. Then a loss of concentration brought a loose Federer service game in the fourth, Wawrinka broke, continued hit freely to break again, and in 26 minutes, the set was done, 6-1.

Federer needed to regain his focus quickly, find his serve, and avoid getting into rallies where he could not handle the Wawrinka pace. But errors continued to fly and Federer’s first serve remained stubbornly in the 50s. Wawrinka angled a return-of-serve backhand winner to break.

Federer managed to break back but, still looking tight, he faced 0-40 courtesy of a chipped return winner, and Wawrinka broke with another superb forehand cross-court winner. Four big serves, and the No4 seed held to love, 6-4.

Now Federer disappeared for a medical time-out, but that did not prevent him facing a break point in the third game and again in the fifth as Wawrinka seemed to grow in strength and confidence.

Yet against the run of play, the younger Swiss suddenly made a couple of serving errors, double faulted, and Federer seized his chance to break, 4-2. As the clock hit three hours, Federer produced perhaps his best service game of the match, finishing at the net, 5-2. In the end, though, it would be the famous Federer forehand that sealed his place in his 28th Grand Slam final and his 100th match in Melbourne, 6-3.

There was as much relief as joy in Federer’s salute to box and crowd, and he quickly admitted that he had got tight after taking the second set:

“I thought [Stan] relaxed, I couldn’t get my serve, and next thing you know—it’s hard to stop the bleeding, I guess, and I couldn’t get my rhythm back, I was playing tight, and Stan was playing with nothing to lose any more.

“I felt Stan had the upper hand in the fifth, he was reading my serve well. I feel like he gave me a bit of a cheap break—it’s not like I really deserved it at that moment—but it feels amazing. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be coming this far. It’s beautiful. I’m so happy.”

He went on to recount a conversation at the opening of Rafael Nadal’s Academy in the autumn, when the Spaniard was also recuperating from injury.

“I think I’m probably the No1 fan of Rafa, I think his game is just tremendous. And an incredible competitor… I went to open his Academy and I said, ‘I wish we could do a charity match’.

“I was on one leg, he had a wrist injury, and we were playing mini tennis with some juniors, and we were like, ‘This is the best we can do right now!’ Few months later, we may be in the same final here.”

Before that, Nadal has to get past No15 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who is back to the form that took him to No8 in the world two and a half years ago. The 25-year-old Bulgarian has never reached a Major final: Nadal will be targeting his 21st.

Federer is also a friend of Dimitrov, and an admirer of his not entirely dissimilar game, but whoever he faces will not detract from Federer’s pleasure of being part of the final.

“I know I will have a chance to win on Sunday now. That’s a great position to be in. Regardless of who it’s going to be against, I think it’s going to be special either way. One is going to go for his first Slam or it’s the epic battle with Rafa. All I care about is that I can win on Sunday. Doesn’t matter who’s across the net.”

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