How Roger Federer set the ball rolling

There was an unusual sense of uncertainty surrounding Roger Federer heading into Australian Open 2017. He’d been missing from competition for six months in the second half of last year. He didn’t play a tour-level event before arriving in the beautiful city of Melbourne. First two matches of the tournament, he was all scrappy and scratchy which is so unusual of a man who glides over the tennis court.

Yet with his last two performances, the Swiss superstar has attained a level that has many pegging him for title favoritism. His latest showing was a scintillating 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 defeat of 5th seed Kei Nishikori on Sunday night in the fourth round. Coupled with his commanding win over Tomas Berdych in the last 32, that’s two top-10 scalps in his past two outings; while we’re on the subject of statistics, tonight marked his 200th career victory against top-10.

A stumble in the beginning

Credit must be given to Kei Nishikori who would certainly have put a thought of retirement in Roger’s head when he scorched to a 5-1 lead in the first set. But the Swiss settled, finding his groove from the back of the court and clicking on serve to reduce the deficit. He won five games in a row, yet Nishikori halted that momentum in the 12th game with an ace out wide to send the set to a tiebreak.

But if Federer felt any panic, it didn’t show. His forehead was creased a little, his eyebrows knit. He looked fascinatingly lost in thought. It was as if the tumblers in his brain were spinning now, trying to figure out what new combination of shots would unlock all the things the fifth-seeded Nishikori had seen Federer do to Berdych and was now trying to take away from the Swiss.

Nishikori won that with forceful play in the latter stages, but Federer responded with some of his own in the seventh game of the second set, drawing errors from Nishikori’s racket to reach 15-40. Nishikori saved those break-point chances but dished up a double fault to give Federer a third, which the Swiss converted.

Vintage Roger Federer

Once Federer had the break, he didn’t drop another point on serve for the rest of the set. And he was even more dominant in the third, making a concerted effort to attack the net and get the first strike in rallies to break in the third game. From 2-1 up, he raced through four straight games.

Nishikori slumped, losing 12 of the last 14 points.

This was a vintage performance in every way. Federer snapped off 83 winners. He smacked 24 aces. The Swiss star coaxed 18 break-point chances out of Nishikori and saved seven of the 10 against him. He moved like a cat and never showed a hint of fatigue. Nishikori tested him sternly and often. But Roger Federer, despite how little match play he had in the bank, didn’t blink.

Federer accepted that there were doubts in his head but what kept him going was,

“I’m in the tournament now, and you know how the balls and the court surface react to my shots and for my opponents what can happen. I’m not getting surprised so much anymore, which is only helpful for the next round.”

Federer’s ranking has dropped to 17 after he spent six months out with a knee problem, the longest injury break of his career. The 35-year-old’s chances of a first major title since 2012 are improving after the shock exit of top seeds Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.

Federer went on to say,

“That Novak and Andy are not (in the draw), that is a big surprise. I never thought that Mischa Zverev and Denis Istomin would beat those two big guys. Two huge surprises. No doubt about that,” said Federer, who faces Zverev in the quarters.

But tonight was special, no doubt about it. Going five against Kei here on Rod Laver Arena with the comeback, it’s definitely very special. A fitting way to celebrate that (top-10) milestone, I guess.”

Roger Federer now faces Mischa Zverev or probably known as the older brother of 19-year-old tennis prodigy Alexander Sascha Zverev Jr. Or the man who was double-bageled by Roger Federer in a match that lasted all of 39 minutes at the Gerry Weber Open in 2013.


Road ahead

Federer now moves on to play Zverev in the quarterfinals. Winner of this match will get the survivor of the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga-Stan Wawrinka match after that. With Djokovic gone, Nadal is the only former Slam winner among the eight men still alive on the opposite side of the bracket. But while Nadal has looked good as he comes back from his own long layoff with a wrist injury, Federer has looked equally terrific.

The winner of the top half of the draw will likely line up against either third seed Milos Raonic or eighth seed Dominic Thiem in the final – or Rafael Nadal if the two grand slam titans can each win two more matches.

And a nostalgic Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal showdown in the men’s final suddenly seems no crazier to dream about than a potential Williams vs. Williams final on the women’s side of the draw.

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