Australian Open 2020: Defending champ Djokovic sails into semis for 50th meeting with Federer

Six-time champ Federer survives seven match-points to stay unbeaten in 15 Melbourne QFs

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

The task was always going to be an uphill one for Milos Raonic.

All but one of his four matches had been played in the hotter day-time conditions, where his always-formidable serve thrived. Take his quarter-final against Marin Cilic: 35 aces in three sets, and more than twice the winners to errors. Thus far, though, he had not played a single match on the main Rod Laver court.

His ranking was such that he only made his No32 seeding when Alex de Minaur withdrew, for the Canadian was still making his way back from another injury-blighted year. Raonic missed last year’s Roland Garros and the US Open, and was then unable to play Davis Cup due to a back injury. In short, he had won just three matches since Wimbledon—until Australia, that is.

And Melbourne has been one of Raonic’s more successful Majors: 31-9; four quarters in the last five years, making the semi-finals in 2016. Now he was into his fifth quarter-final after beating No6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and unseeded former finalist, Cilic. But…

Against his latest opponent, Raonic faced the seven-time and defending champion, Novak Djokovic. And in a career comprising titles at 16 Majors and 34 Masters, and the No1 ranking for 275 weeks, this was also the mighty Serb’s most successful Major: 72-8, into his 11th Australian Open quarter-final, and aiming to extend his record of titles to eight. Should he do so, he may even reclaim the No1 ranking.

This would be his fifth straight match on the main arena, but that was a near-insignificant factor compared with the overwhelming stat that jumped off the page. Nine times he had played Raoinic, nine times he had won, and Djokovic had dropped only two sets along the way.

What is more, the champion was playing perhaps the best tennis of his career: He arrived already with six wins to his credit—plus more in doubles—on his way to Serbia’s victory at the ATP Cup, and he beat Rafael Nadal, Daniil Medvedev and Gael Monfils in the process. In Melbourne, he dropped one set in his opener, but had been scarcely tested since, even by No14 seed Diego Schwartzman.

So there were few surprises in the early goings of this quarter-final match. With a little sting taken out of the Raonic serve, and playing one of the best returners in the game, the Canadian struggled on serve almost from the start, taken to deuce repeatedly in a nervy half hour of just 12 winners for 18 errors, only five aces for four double faults, and almost inevitably, a break at the ninth attempt by Djokovic converted his third set point, 6-4. Meanwhile, Djokovic had dropped only four points on serve.

The trend continued in the fourth game, with Raonic leaking errors and unable to make any inroads into the Serbian serving. Djokovic seemed to have the Canadian on a piece of string, forcing the big man to rush his shots and change direction—never his strengths—and all the while, his serving was still not yielding enough winners. The Serb broke for 3-1, and kept his advantage to the set’s end, 6-3.

Raonic had worked not a single break chance, and it was taking him many more minutes per game to hold serve than it was Djokovic. The Canadian got a rare break chance in the second game of the third set, but the Djokovic serve is an area of continual improvement in an already near-flawless set of skills.

However, at 4-4, after holding serve with ease, Djokovic asked to leave court to change his contact lenses, and that extended to a medical time-out. Meanwhile, Raonic waited to serve and was clearly frustrated at the hold-up. Yet he would hold with ease.

However, come the 11th game, Djokovic worked four break points and six deuces, but the Canadian saved them to hold a 6-5 lead. In contrast, the champion held to love and they were into a tie-break.

Raonic netted an easy forehand on the opening point: Could he get that important disadvantage back? The answer at the change of ends was virtually conclusive: 5-1. Seconds later, it was certain, as Raonic made one final error on his own serve and Djokovic headed to the semis once more, 7-6(1).

He will next play Roger Federer, in the pair’s first meeting at the Australian Open since Djokovic beat the Swiss in their 2016 semi-final.

Federer’s ride this year in Melbourne Park has been far from plain sailing. Perhaps it had been the cool, slow conditions of his night-time schedule that made life so difficult against the bustling Aussie energy of John Millman—where Federer was 4-8 down in the match-tie-break—and then the in-form Marton Fucsovics. But for a 38-year-old in particular, these were matches that he could do without if he wanted to keep his campaign for a 21st Major on track.

As it was, Federer was now the oldest man to reach the quarter-finals at a Major since 1991, and the oldest in Australia since 1977. He was also playing in a record 15th quarter-final in Melbourne for, perhaps surprisingly, he was going for a 102nd victory, more than at Wimbledon and thus his most successful Major in match-wins.

But this was to become an even harder test than the Millman one. Switched to an earlier, hotter time-slot, and playing the powerful big-hitting American No100, Tennys Sandgren, Federer had the challenge of adjusting to faster conditions and against a player he had not met before. And make no mistake: Sandgren, a former quarter-finalist, was playing some of his best tennis after his share of injury problems in the last couple of years. He had already beaten No8 seed Matteo Berrettini and No12 Fabio Fognini in gutsy dog-fights.

However, Federer seemed in control after the first set, 6-3, with Sandgren’s first serve not performing at its best. But the Swiss soon began to look more laboured, his timing and footwork not quite up to standard, and the errors cranked up to 15 as the American’s serving rose to 72 percent. Sandgren broke twice to level the match, 6-2, and in the third, it became still more clear that Federer was struggling physically.

Trailing 0-3, and after a code-violation for language, he took a medical time-out off-court for what later was shown to be a groin and upper-leg problem, and Sandgren broke again in gruelling eighth game for the set, 6-2.

The fourth set would become a thriller, once Federer and some pain killers began to have more impact. Still Federer faced tougher service holds, including three match-points at 4-5. And having failed to convert one chance of his own at 5-5, they headed to a tiebreak.

And there, Sandgren still seemed to have the match on his racket, and indeed he had a look at four more match points, 6-3 up, and then at 7-6. But as before, the significance of the moment seemed to grip the American, and he made tight errors.

Federer served it out, 7-6(8), and the momentum shift was complete, despite Sandgren making 10 aces to zero from the Swiss, 32 winners to just 11 from Federer. The Swiss broke in the sixth game of the decider, 4-2, and never looked back, serving out an eventful win, 6-3, after more than three and a half hours.

Federer afterwards used words like ‘lucky’, ‘miracle’, and ‘I didn’t deserve this one’, but that cannot detract from one his most remarkable achievements. He has never retired in 1,512 matches.

But what of that injury, recovery, and the momentous task that now lies ahead in a 50th meeting with one of his greatest rivals? For Djokovic is the one man who has outshone him in Melbourne, and he trails their head-to-head, 23-26, and 1-3 in Australia.

“Hopefully we’ll find out that [the injury] is actually nothing bad, that it was just the groin that went really tight from playing a lot, who knows what, from nerves. I don’t know. I’m hopeful. We’ll find out.”

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