Yet morning after morning, UK fans woke to the news that the 23-year-old man ranked 49 in the world had taken another step through the draw.
Few gave him much hope even of making it through the first round when he was drawn against No11 seed Kevin Anderson. But win he did, in a gruelling five-set thriller, coming back from two sets to one down to score one of the best wins of his career.
And from that point, what had looked a tough draw opened up in front of Edmund, for the other three seeds in this eighth of the draw also lost their openers. An unseeded man from Edmund’s eighth would certainly reach the quarter-finals, and the Briton was among the highest-ranked among them.
Sure enough, through extreme heat, another gruelling five-setter against Nikoloz Basilashvili, and then three hours against Andreas Seppi, Edmund’s forehand, serve, fitness and focus stood up to the pressure. He was into his first Major quarter-final, but despite all the headlines he was making back home, few gave him a chance against the winner of the World Tour Finals just two months ago, No3 in the world, Grigor Dimitrov.
Yet in his first ever match in the magnificent Rod Laver arena, in his first ever Major quarter-final, Edmund continued to ply his aggressive, confident game: He beat Dimitrov to become the big story not just on newspapers’ back pages but in the main news headlines, and he handled it all with quiet, understated aplomb.
So by the time he took to court against Marin Cilic, now at the more civilised hour of 8.30am in the UK, there were few back home who were not up to speed. By now, many were following the scoreline at home, at work, at play.
The BBC blog featured someone being treated at the dentist, another teaching his PE class, one more plugged into the radio at her desk—even someone about to have an interview for a job. There were tweets from Brits living in Italy, injured in the Alps, and a lucky few who had made it to Melbourne itself for a seat to watch the action live.
Andy Murray, followed Johanna Konta, and Jamie Murray in doubles, have raised the profile of tennis in the UK to its highest level in decades, and here was Edmund taking the baton in Australia—and with it a leap into the top 30. Should he reach the final, he would even overtake Murray, who had just resorted to hip surgery after six months off the tour. That would be top-20 territory for Edmund.
But first was the formidable Cilic, one of that rare breed on the current tour, a Major champion, and the runner-up at Wimbledon last year, where his painful feet let him down.
He had scored his 100th Major match-win on his way past the No10 seed Pablo Carreno Busta and then produced that US Open-winning form to beat top seed Rafael Nadal into submission—by retirement in the fifth set. It had been hard work, and the Croat with the big serve, forehand and backhand had spent as much time as Edmund to reach the semis, 14 and three-quarter hours.
There was, though, no doubting that this was an uphill task for the Briton: after all, Cilic was about to rise to a new career-high himself, No3 no less, after knocking at the door held shut by the ‘big four’ for so many years.
In the event, it was Edmund who came racing from the blocks with a couple of cracking forehand winners, and he had two break chances. Cilic responded well, held, and forced the pressure back on the younger player.
Edmund double faulted, was called for a foot-fault, but held firm, while Cilic, after his opening waver, was now into his clean-striking rhythm. He held to love for 3-2, and got the break-through in the sixth game. There were little signs, though, that the Croat was starting to feel it physically. He constantly flexed his right leg, but held from deuce, and then pummelled Edmund to break for the set, 6-2.
And it was not Cilic but Edmund who left court for a medical time out, forcing an eight-minute delay in proceedings. And initially, it seemed to work for the Briton. He fought off a break point for 2-2, and was pricked into anger by what he considered an unfair decision on a line-call. He took on umpire and referee to no avail, but thumped a couple of forehand winners to keep on track, then held to love for 3-3.
Neither man would yield an inch as they headed to a tie-break, and neither gave way until the mid-point, a mini-break for Cilic, 4-3, with a stunning backhand switch down the line. He pounded in for an overhead winner, and sealed the set with a forehand, 7-6(4).
That seemed to take the wind out of Edmund’s sails, not helped by increasingly uncomfortable movement. He had certainly lost a step in his pace, and Cilic was ruthless in taking advantage, firing to the corners with depth and precision. He broke Edmund in third game, but the Briton continued to dig in, taking his opponent to multiple deuces in the fourth and holding off two break points in the fifth.
But his cause was lost in the seventh game once he failed to defend four deuces and two break points, leaving Cilic to serve it out, 6-2, after two and a quarter hours.
It makes Cilic the first Croatian, male or female, to reach final of the Australian Open—and world No3 next week. And gentleman that he is, he afterwards had generous words about his young opponent.
“He’s playing great tennis, and last couple of years he has improved a lot and had an extremely tough run to the semis. Definitely left some scars on his body. I can feel that too, but definitely he’s got a bright future and we will see him a lot more.”
But of his final match, he would give little away about his preferences between the 36-year-old Roger Federer, who beat him in that Wimbledon final last year, or #NextGen champion, 21-year-old Hyeon Chung.
“I mean, I think you have Roger as a player who has been one of the most successful at these stages of Grand Slams, and also I think his performances were [for] such a long period of time, especially when it gets to quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals, he’s getting better and better and better, and playing great tennis. So, with him it’s always a big challenge.
“With Chung, I played him a few times, and looking at his game, I think he has improved a lot in the last six to 12 months. And he has, I think, matured, playing really, really good tennis, entertaining to watch. Amazing defensive player and also hitting big from both sides.
“You know, it’s no answer for you [the media], but I’m going to focus on myself.”
Working in Cilic’s favour is an extra day’s rest, while Federer and Chung play tomorrow for the last place come Sunday. So the Croat is feeling very confident about his chances:
“I think I improved compared to end of the last year. I’m playing much, much more aggressive. I’m feeling that I am, for most of the shots, hitting them really, really good. From the return, moving, forehand, backhand, serving, I think everything is in a good, solid spot. Feeling really excited about the final, too.”
He will be formidable. And he may just be heading to a second Major title.
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BIOGRAPHY: Nabil Fekir
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