Federer survives Australian assault, but home nation is on the march
Roger Federer comes from a set down to beat John Millman in the second round of the Brisbane international
Since Roger Federer played in Brisbane for the first time last year, he has added another set of twins to his entourage, but that has clearly not dampened his enthusiasm for exploring new places.
If anything, it seems to have increased his taste for new experiences: Now dolphins, next helicopter rides; now photographs of beach sunsets, next of Brisbane’s modern art gallery.
But mixed into the sporting headlines has been one big number. Should Federer go one step further than his final finish in 2014, he would hit 1,000 match-wins. Australia expects, but Brisbane hopes.
By the time Federer played his opening match, however, Australia and Brisbane were thrilling to another story, the success of their own countrymen.
2014 heralded the arrival of some new Australian tennis talent, with the extrovert 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios leading the way. He reached the quarter-finals of Wimbledon as a wild card, the youngest player to do so since compatriot Bernard Tomic in 2011, beating Rafael Nadal in the process. And he started 2015 as the highest ranked teenager, No50, a rise of 134 places in a year.
So the withdrawal of Kyrgios from Brisbane with a shoulder injury was a disappointment for home fans, but they need not have worried. Friend and rival Thanasi Kokkinakis, just 18 and, at 6ft 5in, even taller than his colleague, won a wild card to the tournament where, last year, he played his first main-tour match. He lost to veteran Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, who would go on to win the title, but a fortnight later won his first Grand Slam match in Melbourne.
Twice last season, Kokkinakis was invited to train with Federer and, now ranked 150 rather than 478, he duly won his Brisbane opener against No8 seed Julien Benneteau before losing to still-only-22 Tomic.
Tomic himself has long shown the potential to challenge at the highest level, but after reaching the Sydney final this time last year, he retired from the Australian Open and went on to have double hip surgery. Not until the grass season did he win a main-tour match, then won his second career title in Bogota and reached the semis in Stockholm. From No124 in July, he entered Brisbane at 53, beat Sam Querrey and then Kokkinakis to reach the quarters.
Even so, that was just the start for the home fans. Hewitt may have lost in the first round, but it was to big-serving Sam Groth, who made his way to the quarters via Lukasz Kubot.
In the top half of the draw, James Duckworth, also just 22, recorded his first main-tour win since reaching the second round at Queen’s last year—what would be his only main-tour victory in a year of Challenger competition. And it looked, for a while, as though his next opponent would be another Australian.
The third wild card in the draw was John Millman, a Brisbane native who clearly relished the chance to shine against top-seed Federer. For his 153 ranking and zero tally of main-tour match-wins last year belied a spirited and big-hitting player who has worked hard to come back from adversity. He finished 2014 with back-to-back Challenger titles after a shoulder injury sidelined him for 11 months during 2013-14.
It’s possible that Federer was temporarily nonplussed at the weight of support for Millman: the Swiss is invariably a favourite wherever he appears. More likely, he was match-rusty, despite an off-season of exhibition appearances. Whatever the reason, Federer failed to convert four break points in the first game, had to defend two in the sixth, and found himself at 4-5, 0-40 in the face of a barrage of hitting from Millman—much of the attack aimed at the Federer backhand.
The Swiss fought back to deuce but hit two wayward smashes in a row to concede the set, 6-4, with a total of 21 errors—and he was quickly down 3-1 in the second set courtesy of a stunning cross-court backhand pass from Millman.
At last, Federer began to bed in, and then to open chances to attack the net—though his all-too-frequent second serve was routinely punished by Millman.
He broke back, yet still the errors came, first a double fault, then a netted backhand, to face three more break points. He held with four net plays and an ace, and it was more aggressive net work that sealed the decisive break in the seventh game, though it was almost wiped out by a Millman break-point at 4-5.
A slip either way would now prove costly. Millman survived two break points and three deuces in the fifth game—though not before Federer pulled off a magical backhand pass round the post. But come Millman’s next serve, he it was who blinked first, Federer broke and broke again for set and match, 6-3.
Federer afterwards admitted to some tiredness, but also credited his opponent: “I think I got quite lucky. He was playing great tennis until maybe the last couple of games. I had to fight very hard. Credit to him for pushing me to the edge.
“I didn’t play badly, but maybe felt a bit tired at times. The first match of the season you never know quite what to expect. Felt like the last match of the season rather than the first [smiling]. I’m sweating like crazy!”
So Federer moves to within three wins of his 1,000, a milestone reached by only Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. To take the next step, he faces another Aussie with nothing to lose, though Duckworth will know very well what to expect: Federer won their only previous match last year in Melbourne.
But if Australian fans at the start of the week had been offered three quarter-finalists not named Kyrgios or Kokkinakis, they would no doubt have rubbed their hands in delight.