There was an air 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 at Melbourne Park. And in his first two matches of the tournament, he played patchy, scratchy tennis against two qualifiers.
Yet with his last two performances, the Swiss superstar has attained a level that has many pegging him for title favouritism.
His latest showing was a scintillating 6-7(4) 6-4 6-1 4-6 6-3 defeat of No.5 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 opposition.
With world No.1 and top seed Andy Murray cleared from his path earlier on Sunday by Mischa Zverev, Federer’s run is reasonably expected to persist. Six-time winner and defending champ Novak Djokovic is also gone.
“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.”
As exemplary as his performance was, the opening stages of it were anything but. It was the man at the other end, Japan’s finest-ever player, who impressed, scorching to a 5-1 lead against an overwhelmed Federer.
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.
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 racquet 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.
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.
It was tempting to write the fifth seed off when he trailed 0-1, 0-30 in the fourth, but he showed grit, cutting out errors and hanging with Federer until he got an opening in the fifth game. There, Federer botched an overhead and a volley before Nishikori passed him at net. He broke for a 3-2 lead, and ran away with the set.
As the atmosphere crackled at the start of the decider, Federer electrified it further when he broke in the second game and opened a 3-0 lead. Struggling with a back injury, Nishikori nonetheless contributed to some of the highest-quality rallies of the match, particularly in the sixth game when he held to stay alive at 2-4.
Yet it was too great a deficit from which to recover.
Federer, one of the game’s best front-runners, arrived at 5-3 and closed out the match with an unreturnable serve, an ace and an overhead winner to end the three-hour, 24-minute classic.
It was an assured end to a memorable performance. And any uncertainty surrounding Federer’s form seems to have well and truly evaporated.
Especially in his own mind.
“I think I'm playing better and better. Today over a long period of time, I had to be refocused and playing good tennis. I served exceptionally well tonight, which was key against Nishikori. I'm very pleased there. Rhythm from the baseline is there now,” Federer said.
“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.”