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The Mighty Roger Federer Saves Seven Match Points To Win A Thriller At The Australian Open Tennis

By Alix Ramsay

By rights, Roger Federer should be back home in Switzerland enjoying a skiing holiday with his kids. By rights, Tennys Sandgren should still be in Melbourne celebrating his first appearance in a grand slam semi-final. But tennis does not work like that – and Tennys knows it better than most.

The big American had seven match points against a hobbled Fed; he was within touching distance of a place in the last four. And then Fed did what Fed had done so many times during his career: he riffled through the Rolodex, pulled out one of his many tactical plans and showed big Tennys how you go about winning a match. It took three and a half hours and Fed cut it awfully fine but he came through 6-2, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6, 6-3.

The essence of the plan was simple enough: don’t give up, no matter what.

Midway through the second set, it became clear that something was up with Federer. He could not land a forehand to save himself, his serve was all over the place and he was not moving well. By the third set, he was barely moving at all.

The first hint of Fed’s distress came in the third game of the third set when he was done for swearing. Snitched on by the line judge at the back of the court, he wanted to know who had heard what and in what language (Fed speaks many). And just to be clear, he wanted to know if the line judge was from Switzerland (Swiss rude words being of a particular nature).

“It was a mix [of languages],” Fed said of his outburst. “Clearly she speaks mixed. Didn’t know that. Next time I got to check the lines-people.”

But the effing and blinding was simply a response to the physical issues that were holding him back. He was in pain, he was frustrated and he let it show. After losing his argument with the umpire, Marijana Veljovic, he immediately took a medical time out and left the court for treatment. That didn’t help much and he needed more treatment after the fourth set, much to the concern of the Fed Faithful.

“I was starting to feel my groin and my leg starting to just tighten up,” he said. “I really don’t like calling the trainer ever because it’s a sign of weakness and all that stuff and I try not to show it. The best is always when it’s a groin and you have go off court and nobody knows what it is.

“At the end, I was like ‘whatever, I’m going to have some extra treatment on the leg’. People probably know I’m not 100 per cent but, still, I thought it was Tennys that was doing really the match and I just said ‘I believe in miracles. It could rain, there could be stuff’ and, I don’t know, it wasn’t bad enough where I thought it was going to get worse. It was just stiff and tight, whatever. Just let him finish me off in style and he didn’t do that so incredibly I’m lucky today.”

By the time the fourth set was limping to a conclusion, it appeared to be all over for the Swiss. He faced his first match points as he served at 4-5 but somehow he managed to wriggle off Sandgren’s hook. But then, once into the tiebreak, the danger moments came thick and fast. Three more match points presented themselves and then another – surely not even he could escape again. But he did, helped in no small measure by Sandgren being not so much tentative as terrified in the tiebreak. The big crunching winners were replaced by passive pats to keep the ball in play – and Roger was lapping that up.

“You’ve got to get lucky sometimes, I’ll tell you that,” Federer said, “because in those seven match points, you are not in control. I was just hoping that maybe he was not going to smash the winner on that one point and you just keep the ball in play and if he does miss one or two, who knows what he’s thinking about.

“But even that, I don’t think it mattered. He played his match, I got incredibly lucky today. And then as the match went on, I started to feel better again and all the pressure went away and I just tried to play. Again, a little lucky to get the break and then I think I served really well for most of the match at the end. I don’t deserve this one but I’m standing here and I’m obviously very, very happy.”

Sure enough, once Federer got his nose in front in the fifth set, Sandgren’s moment had passed. That is what Federer – or Nadal or Djokovic, for that matter – do to a chap: they crush his spirit. Only Nadal and Djokovic truly believe that they have a chance against Federer when they are two sets and a break down. And even then, they have their moments of doubt. Mere mortals like Sandgren can play their best, they can take the lead but when the Mighty One fights back, that horrible flash of reality shatters their dreams. That is when they realise “Oh, Crippen, this bloke has beaten better men than me and he has done it in 20 grand slam finals”. That can take the wind out of the sails of even the most confident.

The confidence levels, though, are rising on the other side of the net. To have come so close to defeat against John Millman on Friday (Fed was 8-4 down in the match tiebreak) dented Fed’s feelgood factor. But that he survived and now has survived against Sandgren on Tuesday has given Fed hope that somebody, somewhere is watching out for him. He even thinks that his injury issues could be stress related and, as a result, fixable by Thursday night.

“I’ve got nothing to do the rest of the day today,” he said, “nothing to do tomorrow and then I play at night. You do feel better in a couple of days and then you just never know again. And with these lucky escapes, you might play without any expectations anymore because you know you should already be skiing in Switzerland and not just be on the way there. So I’m lucky to be here and might as well make the most of it.”

Whether he is allowed to make the most of it remains to be seen. Standing between Fed and a place in the final is the seven-time champion Novak Djokovic. The world No.2 did what he always does when he faces Milos Raonic and won with ease. That makes 10 wins out of 10 for Djokovic and in all of those meetings, Raonic has won just two sets.

Even when he was having issues with his contact lenses – at one point he was signalling that he could not see out of one eye – he still seemed to be seeing the Raonic serve in slow motion. The big Canadian could not touch him. Then again, he never can.

Now Federer and Djokovic will meet for the 50th time in their careers. Djokovic leads their rivalry 26-23 but Fed won their last meeting, walloping Djoko at the ATP Tour Finals in London last November. That said, he also had two championship points against the Serb in the Wimbledon final and still lost in five sets. If someone, somewhere is watching out over Fed this week, they are going to have their work cut out on Thursday night if the old GOAT is to reach eighth final in pursuit of his seventh title. Still, stranger things have happened in the past nine days at Melbourne Park.


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