Guess who’s in his 11th consecutive Australian Open SF! Yes it is he, the slayer of tennis balls, the one with a full head of gorgeous locks and the beacon of angelic light on court (because “he’s so shiny” – thank you forever for that statement Jo) – Roger Federer!!!! This will also be his record-setting 34th Grand Slam SF. Meanwhile, he has now won his 73rd Australian Open match, his 265th Grand Slam match, and his 931st career match out of 1,147 matches played.
Federer won his QF clash with Andy Murray in 4 sets (yes I know it should’ve been in 3, we’ll get to that!). It took him exactly 200 minutes to post the 6-3, 6-4, 6-7(8-6), 6-3 score line. Set 1 started with a comprehensive hold to 15 as the Maestro began to push Andy immediately. He had the Scot 0-30 down in his first service game but Andy managed to extract errors out of Roger and hold. Another hold to 15 and Roger was back to putting the pressure on Andy. With the power of his almighty forehand he hit 3 straight winners, a forehand down the line, a forehand volley and a forehand cross court. 15-40 down Andy sent his own forehand long giving the Swiss the quick break to go up 3*-1. After that both players stayed on serve, Federer with ease and Murray having to fight. It all came down to Roger having to serve for it which he did, to love, in 31 minutes.
Set 2 and Andy started to get pumped up. His groundstrokes started to get back some of the depth that had been missing in the first set and his level began to pick up but Roger was simply too good. In Andy’s third service game, Roger pushed the score to 30 all with a backhand winner and then Andy netted a forehand to give the Swiss a break point. After a quick rally, Andy’s forehand went wide and Roger was up a break 3*-2. While Roger was serving to consolidate, Andy produced some brilliant play of his own including a gorgeous lob to push Roger to two deuces. But the Maestro’s fantastic serving helped him out and he held at 4-2*. After that, it was tennis at a very high standard as both players played tactically, with extreme angles, powerful groundstrokes and some delicious net play especially from Roger. Both pushed each other but neither faced break points and that is how it remained till Federer served out the second set in 48 minutes.
Set 3 and Roger immediately had 3 break points on Andy’s serve but failed to convert. He had another one on Andy’s second service game but failed to convert that too. However, what he kept doing well throughout was holding his own serve. He had one love hold, 2 holds to 15 and only one hold to 30 by the time they were at 4 all. Then, on Andy’s 5th service game Roger took it up a notch and put the pressure on Andy which resulted in the Swiss having 2 break points. He only needed one and Andy was broken. The score was 5*-4 with Federer to serve for the match. And that’s when it happened. Maybe he got nervous about closing it out, or maybe he made the mistake of looking beyond the QFs before actually winning it. Whatever the reason, Roger inexplicably got tight. He offered 2 break points, saved one, but couldn’t save the other and for the first (and only) time in the match, Roger was broken.
At 5 all Andy found a new gear. He quickly held and then made Roger serve to try and take it to a tie-break. Roger regrouped (alas temporarily) and held to love. 6-all and we were in a tie-break. Roger got a mini-break to go up 3*-2 and then consolidated to go up 5-2*. Andy held his next two serves, and the tie-break was 4-5* with Federer to serve. A high-kick serve took it to 6*-4 and Roger had match point. Then, yet again, the demons returned, Roger got nervous and sailed a forehand long, and the mini-break was gone at 6-5*. A rejuvenated Murray held his next two serves and was at set point on Roger’s serve. A listless Roger hit a backhand long and unbelievably the set was Andy’s, 7-6(8-6) in 63 minutes. #facepalm + #headdesk
Onto Set 4, and it looked like Roger had regrouped for the most part when he held to 30. Then came Andy’s first service game and now looking back, it might actually be the longest game of the tournament – it lasted for almost 20 minutes. In it, Roger had 3 break points right away. He converted none. He ultimately had 3 more but in vain. Meanwhile Andy had Advantage 7 times but Roger kept pulling him back until finally on the 7th game point, Andy held and it was 1-all. The take-away from that game for me what that at least Roger was really pushing Andy while Andy was playing to survive. I hoped that attacking mentality would remain with Roger and sure enough he made an emphatic statement right away after losing that game with a minute love hold of his own to go up 2-1*. As if to make a rebuttal, Andy then held to love as well. But by now I sensed Roger had calmed down and he was out of that mental funk he had gone to while he was serving for the match in Set 3. He seemed focused, intense and in no mood to prolong this misery.
Serving to go up to 3-all Murray was pushed to deuce 3 times and even offered Roger a break point before he eventually held. Meanwhile, Roger continued to hold with much more ease again while never easing up on pressuring Andy. This showed in Andy’s 4th service game when 3 forehand errors from the Scot gave Roger 3 break points. He saved the first 2 with fantastic serves but finally, FINALLY, Roger broke him on the third and now had to serve for the match, AGAIN. Reminiscent of the last time, Roger was quickly down 0-30. But thankfully he refocused and smashed a forehand winner and two great serves to gift himself a match point once more. This time there was no more drama as he ended the story with an ace. Game, Set, Match, Federer. With this win, Federer narrowed the H2H gap with Murray to negative 1 only; they are at 10-11 now in favor of Andy. Here are the match stats.Roger did better than Andy in almost every department. His service games were miles better with higher percentages in 1st serves in, and points won off both the 1st and 2nd serves. He was obviously better in his net game too. Not only did he come to the net more, 66 times to Andy’s 27, he won 74% of those points too. His break point conversion is obviously ridiculous, he missed 4 in Set 3 and 9 in Set 4 but it is what it is and I now look at it to mean that he’s at least creating chances and keeping the pressure on. One stat that stood out to me was his return stats. We expect those stats from Andy who is one of the best returners of the game today but Roger did very well indeed. I think it’s a combination of his improved movement plus the new racquet that’s giving his returns extra zip. At least based on this tournament we can say the racquet has helped his backhands quite a bit and added some power into his forehand too.
As for that brief and untimely mental collapse in Set 3, I think it’s still down to Roger not being fully there yet in terms of his confidence, though obviously he is at a much better place than last year. I also felt that in a pressure situation he backed off the aggression. He was a bit too passive and simply chipped back some shots instead of trying to hit winners. Interestingly I think for that period in the match, Roger became more passive and Andy more aggressive. Neither is a natural state for either player and while Roger was able to get out of his mental cloud and go back to his game plan, Andy stuck with his newly found aggression and went for too many shots in the end in Set 4.
Here is the link to the presser which I highly recommend; there is a ton of information in there. Here is a small clip of the presser. Here are the highlights and here is match point. Lastly here is the hilarious on-court interview with Jim Courier where he addressed the break point issue too! 😉
So that was the QF and now onto the SF and it is with none other than old friend and rival, Rafa Nadal. This will be their 33rd meeting and it will have the feel of a final till you’ll realize half way through the match that it’s not 😦 Blame the evil draw for that one. With Rafa, it’s got more to do with Roger’s mental block than anything else. But I believe there are some encouraging signs that can give us hope. First, no one (well almost no one) is expecting him to win this, he’s the underdog and that suits him just fine to go for broke. Second, he has a renewed sense of confidence in his game post the Tsonga and now the Murray match. He survived two tough matches and played only 7 sets whereas last year he had played 10 with these two. He is feeling strong both physically and mentally. Third, his new racquet is definitely giving him some power, especially on the backhand which has always been Rafa’s target area. Fourth, apparently he had already spoken about playing Rafa with Edberg when they initially met up in Dubai. Here are his comments from the presser.
“I’m looking forward to speaking to Stefan, because when we spoke together, you know, when he came to Dubai and we spoke about the game, we clearly spoke about playing Rafa, as well. He thought he had some good ideas, so I’m looking forward to what he has to say. Clearly with Severin, he knows him inside out. I’m looking forward to hear what the boys have to say. We’ll prepare. I hope I can get a win. We’ll see.”
Basically what I think is this: the stats (and bookies) are saying Rafa will win but, I think tennis players know much more than any of us how little that matters on match day. Barring injuries, it all comes down to the mental state; how the players are feeling building-up to the match and where their head-space is when they wake up and when they step on court. All I will hope for is that Roger will give it his all and maybe even pull out a few new tricks. Perhaps he can turn back the years to remind us yet again how their rivalry gained such a mythical status in the first place. Back when an unstoppable force met an immovable object and together they created history.
*Photos from ausopen.com except for the screencap of Stefan and Mirka*