Djokovic and Federer take big-time rivalry into Australian Open semi showdown
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic will meet in the semi-finals of the Australian Open after straight-set victories
Lucky Australia. That can be the only reaction ahead of the dream semi-final that will be played out in the Rod Laver Arena on Thursday evening between world No1 Novak Djokovic and No3 Roger Federer.
It could only have worked out better had this 45th meeting between the two superstars who own perhaps the most compelling rivalry in tennis had met in the title match.
Because both Djokovic and Federer, whose styles of play complement, challenge and bring out the best in each other, are stacking up records at every turn.
Take Djokovic. After putting together one of this sport’s best ever seasons in 2015—11 titles from 15 finals, including championship runs at three Grand Slams and the World Tour Finals, ending with 82 wins for just six losses—he opened this year with the Doha title after beating No6 Tomas Berdych and then No5 Rafael Nadal with relative ease.
In dismissing No7 seed Kei Nishikori in today’s quarter-final, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, Djokovic looked barely ruffled in the two or so hours it took him to claim his 55th match-win at the Australian Open—to just six losses—and his sixth semi-final at Melbourne Park.
He now stands only four wins short of 700 match-wins in his career, and is into his 29th Grand Slam semi-final: Only Federer and Jimmy Connors have reached more. And that after equalling Connors’ streak of 27 Major quarter-finals: only Federer is better, with a run of 36.
In his sights is a sixth Australian title, something only Roy Emerson has achieved, and an 11th Grand Slam, to draw level with tennis greats Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver.
And Djokovic, who has now won 36 of his past 37 matches, is currently on a 13-match winning streak, with almost double the ranking points of No2 Andy Murray. In short, he is expected to tick off more milestones come final Sunday.
But then take Federer, who just happened to score three of those victories over Djokovic among a remarkable eight meetings last year, and who is responsible for that one Serbian loss in the last 37 matches.
He it is, at 34 years old, and playing in a record 65th consecutive Major, who leads the field in Grand Slam quarter-finals (47), semi-finals (39), finals (27) and titles (17).
By beating Grigor Dimitrov in the third round this year, he reached 300 Grand Slam match-wins, and with his victory over Berdych in today’s quarter-final, 7-6(4) 6-2 6-4—he moved within four of Martina Navratilova’s all-time record.
In Australia, he has won four times, is now in his 12th semi-final ‘Down Under’ and has ticked off his 80th match-win. And that, perhaps surprisingly, makes the Australian Open his most successful Major so far as measured by match-wins and semi-finals.
And yet, despite reaching more Grand Slam finals than anyone but Djokovic since Stan Wawrinka won here two years ago, Federer has fallen short of a Major title since Wimbledon 2012, and has lost all three finals since then to Djokovic.
This time, though, only one of them can reach the final, and it is anyone’s guess who that will be. Both made their top-10 opponents, who had each reached Grand Slam finals themselves, look like also-rans.
In fairness, Nishikori had picked up a leg problem that needed a medical time-out after the second set, but Djokovic certainly picked up his level from the disappointing five-setter he edged against Gilles Simon in the fourth round. The Serb’s serving has become a precise weapon among the multitude that Djokovic possesses, and whenever trouble loomed, he found a perfect delivery. He broke in the sixth game of the first set, and from 0-30 down at 5-3, won four straight points.
When Nishikori showed occasional moments of brilliance, Djokovic’s remarkable movement and speed came to his defence. He slowed his serving preparation, and defended two break points in the second game of the second set for a 2-0 lead. Nishikori conceded another break in the fifth game and failed to break through the Djokovic defence to capitalise on three more break chances: The defending champion held, 6-2.
Nishikori had a glimmer of a chance at the start of the third after a break of over seven minutes. He fought off a break point and then broke Djokovic, 2-0. It was short-lived: three successive breaks of serve and the Serb held for 5-3, serving out with a clean backhand winner, 6-4.
Federer faced a more resistant Berdych, who showed just why he has enjoyed such success on the faster courts of Melbourne: This was the Czech’s sixth quarter-final in a row, and for the last two years he has reached the semis.
Berdych had also caused Federer problems in big matches before: The big, powerful and consistent Czech beat Federer in their last US Open match in 2012, in their last Wimbledon match in 2010, and twice on some of Federer’s favourite hard courts: in Dubai and Cincinnati. And at their last Australian meeting? Federer had to come back from two sets to love down in 2009.
Berdych made no secret of his hope of an upset here, either, and started with a break in the third game. His own aggressive tennis was countered quickly by the fast-paced attack of Federer, who broke back, and with nothing between them on the stats board, they edged to a tie-break.
Federer slotted a couple of winners at the right moment for 4-2, and closed out the set with one of eight volley winners, 7-6(4).
Aside from an exchange of breaks in the third, Berdych rarely got another look-in, as Federer notched up winner after winner at the net, all but eliminated his errors, and broke in ninth game. With little more than two hours on the clock, he served for his 80th Melbourne win.
So, lucky Australia. That the Federer-Djokovic rivalry is poised at 22 matches apiece adds a little more spice, and Djokovic has not yet headed Federer. Perhaps his chances of doing so now are bolstered by their meeting in a best-of-five-set match: After all, Federer has six years and almost 500 matches more in his legs than the super-Serb, and could not maintain his challenge through their recent Grand Slam finals.
This time, meeting a round earlier, and with Federer having spent two-and-a-half hours less on court, who knows?
Expect Melbourne to come to a standstill on Thursday evening to find out.