Four-time Australian Open champion Roger Federer is through to his sixth final at Melbourne Park, and first since 2010, after surviving a fightback from Swiss compatriot Stan Wawrinka to prevail 7-5 6-3 1-6 4-6 6-3 and move within one win of an 18th Grand Slam title.
Federer is the oldest man to reach a Grand Slam singles final since 39-year-old Ken Rosewall at the 1974 US Open, beating three players with top-10 rankings to reach a Grand Slam final for the first time, adding his first five-set victory over Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, to earlier wins over Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori.
It is just the second time he has won two five-set matches before the final, as he did en route to his French Open triumph in 2009.
On Sunday, the 35-year-old will play his 100th Australian Open match against either Rafael Nadal – a potential repeat of the Australian Open 2009 final – or Grigor Dimitrov, playing for a place in his first Grand Slam final in Friday’s second semifinal showdown.
“I’ll leave all the energy here in Australia, and then I can relax after here,” said Federer, who will contest his 28th major final on Sunday. “It's gone much better than I thought it would. That's also what I was telling myself in the fifth set. I was talking to myself, saying like, ‘Just relax, man. The comeback is so great already. Let it fly off your racquet and just see what happens’.
“I think that’s the mindset I got to have as well in the finals – a nothing-to-lose mentality. It's been nice these last six matches to have that mentality. It worked very well, so I'll keep that up.”
Wawrinka, playing with a knee injury, did his level best to draw all he could from Federer, who also took a rare medical time-out ahead of the fifth set for an upper leg injury he admitted has required management throughout the tournament, his first tour-level event since Wimbledon six months ago. “I felt it from the second game of the match, I don’t know why,” he explained.
Federer’s backhand is the bellwether for his game, and in the opening exchanges the signs were good. His lunge and flick at a full-blooded Wawrinka return in the first game skidded cross-court and beyond the No.4 seed, averting the danger with a touch of magic and setting the tone for the 50-minute opener.
After both men spurned early chances to break, the match settled into a familiar rhythm: Federer looking for quick points, Wawrinka serving well and probing for a chance to unleash a piercing winner. But at the sharp end of proceedings, the 17-time Grand Slam champion coughed up two backhand errors and netted a gnarly drop shot to give Wawrinka the chance to break at 5-5, only to storm back with some first-strike tennis and roll through his compatriot in the next game to steal the first set.
You could forgive Wawrinka for feeling a little stunned. As Federer ghosted forward whenever possible, targeting his forehand on serve and with the first volleys, the 2014 champion found himself searching for a foothold in the match. Federer was in no mood for charity, scudding a return through the baseline en route to break for 4-2, prompting Wawrinka to snap his racquet over his left knee.
A love hold put Federer two sets to the good, and when Wawrinka retreated for a medical time-out before the start of the third, it seemed his chances of mounting a comeback were slim. But the 31-year-old returned with a taped right knee and, as conditions cooled at Rod Laver Arena, a fresh mind. The slower ball give him time to set up his thunderous strokes, and the 31-year-old capitalised in emphatic fashion. From 1-1 he produced a six-game tear that left Federer trailing by a break at the start of the fourth, hammering Federer from all corners as the 35-year-old’s footwork began to falter.
Federer doubled down on defence to stem the flow with a break back in the second game, teasing the errors from Wawrinka when it counted. But still he was hanging on, and with his split-step far less spritely he could only watch as a Wawrinka return floated past to bring up three break points at 4-4. Two were saved, but the three-time major champ clinched the third, serving out to send the match into a fifth set – the first of their 22-match history.
“Midway through the fourth when I realised my game was fading, Stan was having the upper hand on the baseline,” Federer admitted. “Things turn for the worse, you don't know why.
“But the good thing is, I did have the cushion from the first two sets. I think I did a lot of things right. I prepared the match in a way that allowed me to win it later on. He definitely relaxed midway through the third and fourth mentally and played more freely.”
Federer left the court for treatment and returned to fire an ace en route to a comfortable hold – a rare treat amid the tension. Wawrinka still seemed to be in the ascendance in the opening stages of the decider, but after digging himself out of trouble from 0-30 down at 1-2, he double-faulted on break point to cough up a 4-2 lead to his compatriot. This time there was no coming back, Federer rolling through two service games to seal victory after three hours, four minutes.
“In the fifth, I just knew I had to find my energy again,” said Federer, who extended his unbeaten run on hard courts against Wawrinka to 14 matches. “Play with intensity, play more aggressive, take the ball early, believe in myself, serve good, try not to get in too many tough moments early on, which then I did.
“It was an awkward match. Always against Stan, it was always never going to be easy – especially how the third and fourth set went by, I needed to react really, because he had the upper hand from the baseline. I thought it was going to be tough in the fifth. I think he gave me a cheap break – after that, I never looked back.”