His third-round match against Tomas Berdych in Melbourne was the moment when he began to believe that he might do better than expected after a 2016 season in which he had played only 28 matches, won not a single title, and closed down his season after Wimbledon.
His first two matches at the Australian Open last year had been patchy, but in that third against Berdych, the Swiss played a near-perfect match, a 90-minute trouncing that left the hapless Czech with his hands on his hips in despair.
Berdych would go on to show, just a couple of months later in Miami, what heart and determination he has: Federer had to save two match points before closing out their considerably longer contest, 7-6(6), in the decider.
Indeed Berdych had got the better of Federer on a few occasions, and on some of the biggest stages: The US Open in 2012; Wimbledon in 2010; and in their very first match, the Athens Olympics of 2004. But in Australia, the most frequent Major stage to feature in their 25 previous matches, Federer had never lost.
Berdych this year, however, was cutting a fine figure after injuries ended his 2017 season prematurely. He was looking lithe and fit, and raced past the formidable Juan Martin del Potro and then No25 seed Fabio Fognini for the loss of fewer than 10 games apiece. Perhaps the newly-grown hair had restored his powers… and that looked to be the case in the first set against Federer in their third straight meeting in Melbourne in three years. He broke in the second game, held for 3-0, and went on to hold to love for 5-2.
Federer seemed unable to produce his best tennis: nerves, perhaps, or the switch back to cool conditions from the hot afternoon of Round 4. He was making errors, missing serves, unable to take chances—and Berdych was taking the game to his opponent with some big serving and strikes to the lines. However, Federer fired himself up just in time, spurred further by some less-than-perfect line-calling. Then Hawkeye played its part with Federer standing at break point—yes, the Berdych serve was in, the umpire pronounced, but the proof could not be played.
The Swiss afterwards admitted: “I got a bit lucky, a bit angry, a bit frustrated with the umpire—but I thought the call was good anyway—just a bit frustrated, a bit antsy. I’m just happy I got out of that first set.”
He did, by the skin of his teeth, with a bit of stubbornness and a big dose of bloody-mindedness. Berdych saved three break points, survived three deuces, but Federer unleashed a couple of backhand winners to get the break.
The Swiss was not out of the woods yet though. Berdych held to love, 6-5, helped by a couple of netted forehands from his opponent, and then got another set point as Federer’s first serve went AWOL. But it would go to a tie-break, and once there, the champion’s focus kicked: a forehand winner onto the baseline here, a volley winner there, and a ruthless drop-shot winner to seal the set: 7-6(1).
Federer had notched up 23 winners, but also 18 errors, Berdych had a tidy 8/8, but the momentum had shifted.
Even so, it took Federer some time to take control of the second set. He saved break point in the third game, netted a shocking volley before holding in the seventh game, but then his superior footwork and movement against the big Czech brought their reward against the Berdych serve. Federer broke, then served out the set, 6-3.
It was now Berdych who showed signs of strain—he left the court for a medical time-out—and it became clear that his movement out wide was not comfortable. Nevertheless, his serving and forehand got him a break back after going 1-2 down, he held to love for 3-4, and out-played Federer with a drop-shot to hold for 4-5.
Federer would have to serve it out, and that familiar scent of victory did the trick, 6-4. But at two and a quarter hours, this was the defending champion’s longest match thus far.
Yes, he said afterwards, “the first set could have gone either way, he deserved it actually, so I feel like I stole that a little bit.”
Sometimes a little bit of luck helps, but often, great players make their own luck to win even when not firing on all cylinders. Against Berdych, Federer displayed occasional flashes of brilliance, but also large doses of another less-appreciated quality: a refusal to lose.
It is a package that has now taken the Swiss to the semis in Australia for the 14th time in the last 15 years. That is almost twice as many as any other man in the Open era. He extends his record for Major semis to 43—12 more than next in line, Jimmy Connors and Novak Djokovic. He is also the oldest in 40 years, since Ken Rosewall, to reach the semis in Australia and the oldest in 27 years, since Connors, to make the semis at any Major.
To emphasis the point, the 36-year-old Federer will next play a man 15 years his junior, the South Korean Hyeon Chung, in what will be the 21-year-old’s first Major semi-final.
But then this young player’s tournament has brought first after first to his resume. He has never got beyond the third round of a Major—or even a Masters—before. He had never beaten a top-10 player until No4 Alexander Zverev in the second round. And he certainly had never beaten a former Major champion or No1 player before beating his idol Djokovic in the fourth round.
But after beating fellow non-seed Tennys Sandgren, 6-4, 7-6(5), 6-3, he faces the prospect of playing all three qualities in one man, Federer. However, with the way Chung is playing, and the composure and fitness he has displayed thus far, he will believe he can go still further. As Federer put it:
“Chung is very talented. He’s clearly got nothing to lose. I will tell myself the same, and we’ll see what happens.”
Before that, fellow Major semi-final debutant Kyle Edmund will take the same attitude onto court against the other remaining Major champion in the draw, Marin Cilic. And whatever the outcome, both young players will enjoy their breakthrough into the top 30 next week.
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BIOGRAPHY: Marcus Rashford