“I believe in miracles,” said Roger Federer. How could he not? How would we not, after a day like this.
Federer, himself a freak of nature, pulled off another freakish escape at the Australian Open, this time against Tennys Sandgren, and one that will again make the tennis world wonder how and why he keeps doing this. At the age of 38. Somehow, through nerve or luck or both, the Swiss saved seven match points against the American to script an unlikely 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-3 victory in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open on Tuesday.
He survived 27 aces and a total of 73 winners, while making 56 unforced errors of his own, to extend his quarterfinal record at the Slam to 15-0.
“I don’t deserve this one, but I’m standing here and I’m very, very happy,” said Federer in the aftermath.
Perhaps he did get lucky; perhaps Sandgren did get tight on those match points. But Federer never stopped playing, and he never stopped believing. This competitiveness is what brought him 20 Grand Slam titles, the last of which came at the 2018 Australian Open, at 36. This is what separates him, and the Big 3 (including Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic), from the rest of the field.
Only on Friday, John Millman had come within two points of bouncing Federer from the draw, in front of his home crowd. The Aussie led the match tie-break 8-4, before losing six points in a row. On Monday, an inspired Nick Kyrgios, riding a wave of popularity in Australia, put up a great fight, but still came up short against Nadal. The Big 3, all of whom are well into their 30s, have mastered big-match temperament and are unlikely to fade away anytime soon.
Against Sandgren though, Federer showed a lot of heart by just staying put. In the third set, the Swiss was troubled by a groin and leg injury. His footwork, which anchors the magic, was gone. The usually nimble Federer was trudging around the court and was unable to get down and swing his backhand freely. The unusually flustered Federer was also given a warning by the chair umpire for an ‘audible obscenity’. He took medical timeout at 0-3 but that didn’t seem to help much as Federer lost his serve again in the 8th game, giving up the set 2-6.
Of all the record that Federer holds, one of the most impressive is that he has never withdrawn from a match he has started. And despite the apparent discomfort on a warm, muggy day in Melbourne, he continued playing. In the second and third set, Federer made a total of 30 unforced errors, but he plowed on, waiting to see if Sandgren could “finish me off in style.”
As the painkillers started kicking in, Federer moved a lot better in the fourth set. But Sandgren, hurtling towards the biggest win of his career, didn’t seem to care. Dressed in a sleeveless white tee that showed off his considerable biceps, the American continued to outmuscle the ball and attack Federer’s backhand.
Sandgren, ranked 100 in the world, got a first whiff of victory as Federer played a loose forehand at deuce point, at 4-5 down. In that tense tenth game, the American had three chances to break, but every time Federer fought back with some solid, sensible tennis. Two unforced errors from the American gave Federer a chance to level up at 5-5, and he did it with a forehand winner.
In the tie-break, it was Sandgren again who got the first mini-break at 4-3 and extended the lead to 6-3. There was a lot of support for Federer in the crowd, but not much confidence that he could turn this one around.
Of late, whenever Federer has been down, he’s battled through it with a grittiness, not seen, or rather not needed, in his heyday. But Federer is not just a pretty game. He buckled down, played an intelligent mix of slices and drives, daring his opponent to hit a winner. Two nervy backhand errors from Sandgren bridged the gap. Federer then finished a 19-point rally with a forehand swing volley, the kind of shot that draws his worshippers from around the globe for his matches.
Their man was back.
With the momentum and the crowd now firmly behind him, Federer overcame another match point at 7-6, winning another 19-shot rally that ended in a backhand error from Sandgren. The Swiss sealed the set at 10-8 as a Sandgren forehand flew long.
“I didn't feel like I wasted too much emotional energy out there today because I came to terms quickly that things weren't exactly the way I wanted them to be,” Federer said. “Instead of dwelling over them, I felt like I'll just play with it, see what can be done, see if he can put me away or not. When I got to the fifth set, I was like, ‘I don't feel physically exhausted like against Millman.’”
Federer, who had hit only three aces till that point, began the fifth set with a statement ace. He was looking agile and energised, even as Sandgren at the other end contemplated the enormity of the missed opportunity. Dropping only six points on his serve, Federer broke Sandgren in the sixth game and rolled through the decider.
He will face seven-time Australian Open champion Djokovic in the semi-finals. It is likely to re-open wounds of their "bruising" clash in the Wimbledon final, when the Serb roared back from two match points down on the Federer serve to seal it 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12. Federer trails their head-to-head series 23-26 and has taken the scenic route to the final four, while Djokovic has won four out of five matches in straight sets.
“I always believe till it's actually over, never before,” he said on Tuesday. Roger Federer believes in miracles; so should we.
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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2020 19:47:16 IST