Halle 2017: 13th semi-final not unlucky for Roger Federer as he battles by Khachanov into 11th final
Roger Federer is through to the final in Halle for a 13th time after beating Karen Khachanov 6-4 7-6 (7-5)
As long as the father of four and eight-time Halle champion, Roger Federer, continues to ply his trade on the tennis courts of the world, his semi-final battle of the generations seems likely to be an increasing common treat.
Had you told Federer when he played in this grassy corner of Germany for the first time in 2000, still age just 18, that he would be facing a man who was then only four years old, he would probably have laughed. Yet as he prepared, at the age 35 and playing in his 15th Halle, to play his 13th straight semi-final at the Gerry Weber Open, that is just what he would do.
He admitted, ahead of this first meeting with 21-year-old Karen Khachanov, that he knew little of his game, having practised with him only once. What he did know was that this big, confident, Russian, who was already on course for his first Wimbledon seeding next week, was going to be a handful.
“He’s interesting, he plays a bit different from the regular forehand technique we see. Big and strong, super excited to be on the tour, and working hard. It’s a match I will most likely have to focus on my own game, make sure I serve well because he can go through spells where he can serve big and well.”
Standing five inches taller and several kilos heavier than Federer, Khachanov certainly has a powerhouse serve and forehand, and great movement for such a big man. With his first title in the bag from Chengdu last year, his first Grand Slam fourth-round run at Roland Garros last month, and some big scalps to his name in Tomas Berdych, John Isner and David Goffin, he has grown into his stature as one of the most talked-about #NextGen players on the tour—and he is third in the Race to Milan.
He certainly relished his chance to take on, in his words ‘a legend’:
“It would be nice to be on the court with him and to compete against him.”
Of course, Federer’s reputation and records are huge obstacles in their own right. He owns more grass titles than any other player in history, more Major titles, more weeks at No1… the list goes on. At Halle, he has reached 10 finals, converting eight of them to titles, and suffered only six losses here for 57 wins.
What’s more, as his number of years on the tour becomes a diminishing prospect, his huge fan-base buoys him up with more vigour at every appearance—and in Halle, the home crowd clearly regards him as one of their own.
The roar as the two players were announced under the translucent closed roof said it all. Khachanov was very warmly welcomed, make no mistake. The spectators here took to the free-hitting Russian during his impressive three-setter against fellow #NextGen Russian Andrey Rublev. And they would cheer and clap each glimmer of opportunity that came his way—perhaps in the hope of a longer match. But a swift match looked on the cards when Federer broke in the opening game.
Once Khachanov got his nerves out of the way, though, this would become much, much closer. He immediately broke back, though Federer was after him again in the third game, and broke again. This time, the Swiss held comfortably for 3-1, and the tennis settled into some quick-fire rallies dominated by serve and not a little net attacking from both sides.
It all seemed to be going by the book for Federer as he stepped up to serve it out at 5-4, and promptly starting missing his first serve. Khachanov, a fearless striker when offered a glimmer of a chance, went for his winners and worked a break point, but could not convert it and Federer had the set, 6-4.
Both men showed great resilience against some fine serving from the other. Khachanov was bamboozled a couple of times by the swing and precision of Federer’s serves onto the side-lines and though Federer managed to dive for backhand replies on the Russian’s big serve, the court was laid open for the one-two winner.
But Khachanov, serving at 4-4, fell victim to Federer’s remarkable speed around the court, turning defence into attack in a trice, and the Swiss had the break: All he had to do was hold serve.
This time, however, he faced longer and more concerted pressure from a roaring Khachanov and conceded the break: They were back on level terms. Indeed the Russian had a chance to close out the set twice in the 12th game, but Federer sliced and diced, and drew a couple of fatal errors. It would be a tie-break—and that, too, was in the balance until the last moment.
Federer got the first advantage, 2-0, but they changed ends at 3-3. Each held serve for four points, but on the first set point, Federer got the Khachanov serve back into play and saw a 27th error fly out for the match. It had taken an hour and 25 minutes, and assured Khachanov his share of the ovation as he bid farewell to Halle for this year.
Federer was very appreciative of the young man’s tennis, and rightly so.
“He put in a really good performance. I think for him it’s managing when to go big and when maybe actually 80 percent risk or pace is enough to win the point. Like on set point there was no reason to go this big, but better have no regrets out there. [And] I like that aspect and I like his attitude.
“He remained positive throughout. He had great intensity. I expected that from him. I always like to see a young guy being able to bring that impact in a match day in day out. That’s a huge benefit to take big strides early in your career.”
Federer has now played a clutch of players from the so-called #NextGen, and only one thus far has beaten him. That happens to be Alexander Zverev, a man younger even than Khachanov but already pressing for a place at the World Tour Finals as well as the ATP’s younger sibling in Milan, and he was a possible final opponent.
Zverev beat Federer at this very tournament last year, though the Swiss was not 100 percent recovered from his knee surgery earlier in the year and did not play another tournament after Wimbledon.
With the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami titles under his belt this year, he took another long break through the clay swing, and watching Federer’s movement and athleticism here this week, there is no doubting that rest and recuperation are proving to be key factors in his 36th year.
So was Federer surprised that he was still competing so well with such young players so long after his first visit, I asked?
“The unknown was always going to be the body, your life, you know? How is that going to look when you’re 35, 36. These are all unknowns, but I have to say it’s a success. So, I’m definitely very, very happy that I overachieved in this aspect—it’s definitely a great period of my career, my life right now, which I’m really enjoying.”
He would have to wait a few hours to see whether it was again Zverev who stood opposite him on this court—or a man much more his contemporary, the 31-year-old Richard Gasquet.
And their first match was way back in 2005—a win for Gasquet.
MORE: Alexander Zverev fights back to beat Gasquet and set dream final vs Federer