Even in the twilight of his career, Roger Federer is still capable of conjuring the near impossible. The 38-year-old Swiss produced another miraculous comeback to save seven match points and stun Tennys Sandgren 6-3 2-6 2-6 7-6(8) 6-3 to reach the Australian Open semifinals.
Federer has struggled all tournament, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against John Millman, and initially looking unconvincing against Marton Fucsovics. For the best part of three hours on Tuesday, it seemed for all the world that he was on his way out against an increasingly inspired Sandgren.
It all seemed so routine for Federer when he swept through the first set in just over half an hour. Having slogged his way through a couple of chilly night session encounters, the early afternoon sun appeared much more to his liking, the ball zipping through the Rod Laver Arena surface, and enabling him to rush the net effectively.
However, Sandgren seems to save his best tennis for Melbourne. While he initially seemed slightly overawed in his first appearance on the tournament’s show court since his run to the quarterfinals two years ago, he has been supremely impressive this fortnight. He vanquished Italy’s finest in No.8 and No.12 seeds Matteo Berrettini and Fabio Fognini on his way to the last eight, and he soon began to rise to the occasion.
With his sleeveless top, green headband and bulging biceps, the American reminded some onlookers of a Cobra Kai fighter and he began to capitalise on an increasingly error-prone Federer. With his backhand breaking down, much of the early confidence began to seep away from the Swiss as Sandgren pounded big serves with growing ease and dominated from the back of the court, just as Millman had done on Friday night.
The second set went the way of the American, and then the third. Thirty unforced errors from Federer across both sets told their own story. Such was Federer’s growing disdain with his tennis, he was even given a code violation for an audible obscenity, reported to the umpire by the line judge – an act of diligence which only darkened the Federer mood.
Federer was still slightly hurt about the incident afterwards. "Honestly, to be frustrated at one point, I think it's normal," he said. "I found it a bit tough. It's not like I'm known to throw around words and whatever. It's not like the whole stadium heard it either."
Defeat seemed inevitable as the fourth set progressed much to the audible consternation of Federer’s many fans. By now, Rod Laver Arena was groaning in unison with every error from the Swiss racquet, each game preceded by increasingly desperate attempts to rouse the apparently fading champion. Yet Sandgren simply continued to out-rally and out-hit his man, and at times, it was only the steady Federer serve and his sheer presence which kept him in the contest.
At 5-4, Sandgren forced three match points on the Federer serve, but each time his forehand failed him. He came again, dominating the subsequent tiebreak, and establishing a 6-3 with another ace out wide. But with victory within his grasp, the magnitude of such a win seemed to loom large in Sandgren’s mind. Federer saved all three, and then a seventh at 7-6.
"I feel a bit bad in a way because I didn't feel like he did anything really wrong," Federer said afterwards.
"It's just luck at some point. I've been on the other side, as well. These ones just sting, and they hurt. But I could have blinked at the wrong time and shanked. That would have been it."
Instead, amidst almost unbearable tension, Federer finally created set points of his own, clinching the breaker and forcing a decider to take it 10-8.
As the fifth set got underway, Sandgren’s heart and legs seemed to be finally failing him. With the momentum behind him, Federer ripped a forehand to go 4-2 up, the first time he had broken the Sandgren serve since the sixth game of the match some three hours earlier.
Three games later, a relieved Federer finally sealed his place in the last four. He has now won 102 games at the Australian Open, but this may be the most remarkable of them all.
"I can get through a match like this, through a match like Millman, yeah, you do believe," said Federer on his chances going forwards.
"I always believe till it's actually over, never before."
While Federer's last three matches have all been long, draining encounters, he still feels he may have something left in the tank.
"I didn't feel like I wasted too much emotional energy out there today because I came to terms quickly that things weren't exactly the way I wanted them to be," he reasoned.
"Instead of dwelling over them, I felt like I'll just play with it, see what can be done, see if he can put me away or not. When I got to the fifth set, I was like, 'I don't feel physically exhausted like against Millman.' I recovered very well from that match. I'm also hopeful because I feel like I didn't get spent completely today.
"It really depends sometimes how you're feeling inside, how much it takes away from you. But I must say I feel pretty good right now."