When Roger Federer steps out onto the court at the Rod Laver Arena on Thursday, even he may be surprised to have made it to the Australian Open semi-finals again.
The six-time winner has twice looked certain to be heading for an early exit at this year’s competition before coming back from the brink of defeat to progress.
The 38-year-old has looked increasingly likely to fall short as he ages and, prior to arriving in Melbourne, had lost his last three successive five-set matches.
And yet, his performances thus far have defied all logic — not to mention the human ageing process.
He will now play in his 15th Australian Open semi-final against the only player to have won this Grand Slam more times than himself: Novak Djokovic. The pair have claimed 13 of the last 16 tournaments between them.
Unfazed by adversity
It is typical of Federer to be unfazed by adversity, but even by his lofty standards, saving seven match points in his quarter-final with Tennys Sandgren yesterday was unfathomable. It’s a feat he had only achieved once before, 17 years ago in Cincinnati against Australian Scott Draper.
On this occasion Federer won 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (10-8), 6-3 but American Sandgren had three match points while leading the fourth set 5-4, albeit on Federer’s serve.
After several unforced errors Sandgren ceded the game, only to then engineer a further four match points in the tie-break, including a 6-3 lead, before failing to capitalise.
What adds to this remarkable comeback is that the Swiss was struggling midway through the match with a tight groin and begrudgingly took an off-court medical time-out.
“I don’t like calling the trainer — sign of weakness and all that,” he said following the win, which maintained his record of having never retired from any of his 1,511 tennis matches.
What’s more is that he was forced to go all five sets against John Millman just two rounds earlier, winning 10-8 in a final-set tiebreak, which he had been losing 8-4.
Gracious in victory
Whether it is the vast experience and level-headedness of Federer that allows him to return from the edge of defeat or the apprehension of his opponents as they close in on beating the greatest tennis player of all time is difficult to determine.
Either way, it only seems to increase with age. And while Federer is ever gracious in victory— “I didn’t deserve this one,” he conceded — he remains astonishingly composed after adrenaline-charged occasions that threatened to nudge him closer to retirement.
“The wheels have come off, no doubt about that,” John McEnroe declared as Federer lost his grip on the third set.
Except they haven’t — not yet. But world No2 Djokovic will pose an entirely tougher test that will challenge as both he and Rafa Nadal look to close in on Federer’s record 20 Grand Slam titles.
If there is one thing Federer has on his side now it is that, for once, he is the underdog. The expectation is that he is too old to compete at this level, that he can’t come back from the brink. Yet that may be when he is at his most dangerous.
“The draws are not getting easier, but you never know,” Federer said. “You play without expectations because you know you should probably already be skiing in Switzerland.”