Roger Federer regarded his win as “bittersweet”. Yes, he was through to his seventh Australian Open final, but this was not the way he wanted it to be.
Federer was ushered through to an appointment with Marin Cilic on Sunday when Hyeon Chung hobbled out of Friday night’s semifinal after 62 minutes, trailing the defending champion 6-1 5-2, 30-30. A blister on his left foot had scuppered his chances, and he could do no more.
“I’ve played with blisters in the past and it hurts. A lot,” a sympathetic Federer said. “At some point, it’s just too much and you just can’t take it anymore, and when you realise there’s no way you can come back and you make things really worse, it’s better to stop.
“That’s why this one is bittersweet. I’m really happy to be in the finals, but not like this.”
For Chung, it was a bitterly disappointing end to what had been a sensational tournament. He had never beaten a top-10 player before he came to Melbourne and yet here he was, the conqueror of Alexander Zverev, the world No.4, and Novak Djokovic who, although technically not in the top 10 (he is ranked No.14), is an honorary top-tenner.
Federer, though, was convinced that the 21-year-old South Korean was here to stay. Chung will move up to No.29 in the rankings come Monday, and that is only the beginning of his journey to the top.
“He has a great composure,” Federer said. “He is already a great player, but we are talking about the next level of excellence, and I think he’s going to achieve that. We’re going to see much more of him. Top 10 for sure. The rest? We’ll see. I don’t want to put too much pressure on him. He’s done very well and I can see why he beat the likes of Novak and Sacha and all the others this week and in the past. I think he’s going to be a great, great player.”
When Djokovic was shown the door by Chung, he described the Korean as “a wall” from the back of the court. The master of baseline battering had been beaten at his own game. But against Djokovic, the Korean knew what to expect (he had studied his hero intently for a lifetime), and he knew where the battle would be won and lost.
Against Federer, he was being forced to play from parts of the court he had not visited before. Fed dragged him into the net – and he went there about as willingly as a lemming approaches a cliff edge – and then passed him with laser-guided precision. He toyed with him on the baseline, taking the ball so early that Chung barely had time to blink, much less respond.
If Chung was going to clatter the ball from the back of the court, he was going to need time and rhythm. So Rodge gave him no time whatsoever. And if he liked it on the baseline, Rodge would simply try to remove him from it. Now, that sounds so simple, but no one else had been able to do it over the past 12 days – but the defending is champion is not like other men. He can do things with bat and ball that defy the laws of physics. Chung’s head must have been reeling: this was tennis, Jim, but not as Chung knew it.
All of that took care of the first set, but come the second, Chung was in trouble. He had run a long, long way to get this far. Even his straight-sets victories took lung-bursting effort and sinew-snapping leg work, and the end result was a badly blistered left foot. It is a problem he has been dealing with for days, but on Friday night it all became too much.
Chung was slowing down in the second set and soon begging for help. The trainer tried to retape the problem area after five games, but two-and-a-half games later, he could bear the pain no more and threw in the towel.
So Fed will be back on Sunday to face his old rival Cilic, a man he has beaten eight times in nine meetings. The two practiced together in the Maldives last November when they were both on holiday, and they get along just fine. And then they go to work, and Federer clumps Cilic. But he still has huge respect for his Croatian foe, does Rodge; he knows this will not be simple.
“I definitely think him [Cilic] winning the US Open [in 2014] gave him great belief he can do it,” Federer said. “If the big moments come about, that he can attain this level. Not easily, but he can get there from time to time.
“I like his attitude. He's very professional. He's always very much the same regardless of whether he wins or loses. I like that attitude. On the court, he's a winner.”
Then again, so is Federer – particularly when he is playing Cilic.