It took five sets – five topsy-turvy sets stretched over three and a half hours, studded with stunning shots – but Roger Federer managed an extraordinary 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Kei Nishikori.
What makes this victory even more remarkable is that it came over the fifth seed, in the round of 16, after a six-month injury layoff, and a potentially tough draw. It was a victory that overcame all odds, and many predictions.
With Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori and Andy Murray in his half of the draw, few expecteded Federer to go through to the quarters. But as he showed in his previous win over the 10th-seeded Czech, superlative tennis is what Federer does, no matter the effort required.
If the third round victory was a display of the classic craftsman in Federer, the fourth round win was a lesson in vintage Federer workmanship.
Berdych, who was floored 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 in just 90 minutes, looked like a deer caught in headlights – the lights in this case being a flawless display from Federer – but Nishikori stretched the former champion to what is probably his hardest match since the comeback from an excruciating injury layoff. The 17th seed had to earn every point hard, as Nishikori lobbed and volleyed all across the court. There were some outrageous shots, one that the Swiss hit through between the net post and the umpire's chair, and the points were won and lost by minuscule margins. One game went on for 10 minutes with six deuces, another game soon after was wrapped up in seconds.
But more than a thrilling five-setter, Federer’s win over Nishikori needs to be seem in context of recent events.
To say the 17th seeded Federer was an underdog against Nishikori wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Coming into Australian Open 2017, Federer had played only in the Hopman Cup, an exhibition event. He had last played a full tournament at Wimbledon 2016 – where he suffered a heartbreaking loss in another five-setter – to Milos Raonic in the semis.
Indeed, the Nishikori matches had shades of the Raonic game – the domination interspersed with lapses in concentration and effort – but the visible difference was Federer’s fitness. Post knee-surgery and back rest, Federer looks fit enough to last five sets, something that many a fan would have doubted when Nishikori won the fourth.
Coming back to the match, no one expected a last-16 encounter against the World No 5 to be easy, not even for a 17-time major champion. Nishikori, who needed two medical timeouts himself, threw the kitchen sink at Federer. For a large part of the initial sets, Federer committed numerous unforced errors and seemed to have forgotten his backhand, while his opponent made full use of his. He was broken repeatedly, and made to run around the court in every direction. The set went to a tie-breaker and the Swiss seemed to be out of his depth, losing it 7-4. At that juncture, you’d be forgiven if you thought that this will be straight-sets swansong from the first Slam of the year.
But then came the Federer of yore, the mythical beast from the late 2000s, who sometimes makes an appearance this decade. The second set was won 6-4 with relentless tennis from the Swiss. He seemed far more in control of his shots and commanded many points, won through dazzling shots.
The third set was even more exhilarating – a breadstick win! A quarter-final berth look imminent and many were already sizing Federer against Andy Murray-slayer Mischa Zverev.
But persistent Nishikori returned strong in the fourth set, and despite some solid sparring from both sides of the net, forced a decider by winning it 6-4.
Now was a time for worry. Could Federer’s operated-upon legs manage a fifth, physically intense set? They couldn’t back at Wimbledon. Could he maintain his focus for one more hour, after letting the Japanese player off the hook so often in the fourth?
As it turned out, it was Nishikori who was on the medical staff’s mat as Federer restlessly moved about the court. The 27-year-old was carrying a niggle, as has often been the case in his career. But he gave it his all in the fifth, making Federer dance around from corner to corner, in an attempt to secure the crucial win. However, the crafty Swiss was in no mood to let up and sealed a massive victory.
As soon as the last point was hit – a smash down the line – the 35-year-old Federer let out a roar and bounced up and down, whooping, almost like a teenager. "He played a great match... it was a joy to be a part of. This is an important win for me in my career," he said in his post-match interview, one given in a infectiously cheerful mood.
The display of emotion clearly showed how much this win meant to someone who has already won far too many big games – but a quarter-final berth at a Grand Slam, a win over the fifth seed, at this stage in Federer’s career is a victory against all odds, a testament to his desire to succeed, a triumph of his spirit.
But it wasn’t just spirit that kept Federer going, it was a superlative level of tennis. The numbers speak for themselves: Federer had 83 winners with a 24 aces, as opposed to Nishikori's 42 with five aces. He blazed through his serve]ice game, winning 80 percent on first serve, compared to his opponent's 68 percent. But it was in no way a perfect game, with 47 unforced errors, to Nishikori's 32. If Federer has to reach the last-four or even two, he will need to fine tune his reactions at clutch moments, as the path ahead might not be as smooth sailing. After all, he has giant-killer Mischa Zverev waiting for him next.
But a heartening statistic to note here is that this was Federer's first back-to-back wins over top-10 wins players since the ATP World Tour Finals in 2015, a final that he lost to Novak Djokovic. It shows that the layoff has not dented his level of tennis, and only hardened his resolve.
At a time when his contemporaries and rivals are grinding out results – Djokovic was out in the third round, Andy Murray crashed out in the fourth, Stan Wawrinka has gone through five and four-setters already – Federer seems fluid, almost ironically.
While hopes for the 18th Slam may be far-fetched, even with the upsets that tournament has already seen, the last two matches have shown that sublime tennis is what Roger Federer still does. Good news tennis fans, this 35-year-old isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Updated Date: Jan 24, 2017 13:17:17 IST