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Roger Federer Loses To Novak • A Groin Injury And Empty Tank After Too Many 5 Setters In Australia

By Alix Ramsay

So lightning really does not strike twice, much less three times, in the same place. The Houdini of Melbourne Park, the escape artist par excellence, was finally left bound and gagged in the Rod Laver Arena on Thursday night as Novak Djokovic continued on his relentless march to an eighth Australian Open title.

At the age of 38 and with a nagging groin injury, Roger Federer had defied logic and medical science first to fend off John Millman in five sets in the third round and then Tennys Sandgren in five sets in the quarter-finals. But facing Djokovic is a different matter entirely, particularly in Melbourne. Djokovic takes no prisoners; he is utterly ruthless and in two hours and 18 minutes, he broke the hearts of the majority of the crowd to win 7-6, 6-4, 6-3.

Just to add a little intrigue to the match, Federer had been noticeable by his absence from the practice schedule. His name appeared briefly and was then withdrawn – the old boy was not wasting any extra energy with unnecessary running around in the heat. Not when he had Djokovic to face in the evening.

By mid-afternoon, the rumour mill was grinding and the word was that Federer and his aching body might pull out without hitting a ball. With a record of never having withdrawn during a match, the theory had it that he would not risk it against the Serb.

But Federer did play – he needed treatment after the first set, mind you – and he was never in danger of throwing in the towel. But whatever he had left to use against his old rival, it was nowhere near enough. When Djokovic is in this sort of mood, nothing is near enough.

Seven years ago, when Andy Murray was winning Wimbledon for the first time, he stood serving for the title in the third set. He had been 4-2 down in that final set, he had fought his way back and now he had three Championship points. And yet that was the hardest period of the match for him. It was not the expected nerves and pressure of serving for Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s title in 77 years; it was the pressure of facing the human backboard that is Novak Djokovic: nothing gets through him and nothing gets past him. And Murray knew that the tiniest error could cost him the match.

“Some of the shots he came up with were unbelievable,” Murray recalled. “I maybe played one bad point at deuce.  I remember missing a forehand in the net. I didn’t feel great after the 40‑Love to deuce.  Then I started to feel nervous and started thinking about what just happened.  Very rarely will you get broken from 40‑Love up on grass and when you’re serving for Wimbledon.

“But he came up with some unbelievable shots in that last game. I worked so hard in that last game. It’s the hardest few points I’ve had to play in my life.”

Federer knows just how that feels. He took a 4-1 lead in the first set, he had three points for 5-1, he served for the set at 5-3 – and Djokovic squashed him straight sets. Of course, the Mighty Swiss was not at his best: his movement was not great, he was not the same Federer who had crushed Djokovic at the ATP Finals a few weeks ago but he still had to be beaten. So, when Federer made a mistake, Djokovic made him pay for it. And pay for it again and again. Once that first set was in the bag, there was no stopping the seven-time champion.

“It was probably not exactly the right mindset from my side at the beginning of the match,” Djokovic said. “I was kind of looking more at how he’s moving and what he’s doing rather than executing my shots in the right way. It resulted in the 1-4 down and 0-40 – a lead for him. I managed to kind of dig my way back in the first set and it was very important to win that first set. Obviously, I mentally relaxed a little bit after that and could swing through the ball a little bit more.

“It could have definitely gone a different way if he had used those break points. He started off really well. I was pretty nervous at the beginning and I just want to say respect to Roger for coming out tonight. He was obviously hurt and wasn’t at best – not even close to his best – in terms of movement so respect for coming out and trying is best all the way through.”

For Federer, it was a miserable night. He knew he was struggling – he had done nothing but rest since the Sandgren match – and he knew that he did not stand a chance against Djokovic but, still, he was determined to play if he could. He just knew what the end result was likely to be.

With a hefty dose of hindsight, Federer could be happy enough with reaching the semi-finals – he had no lead-up matches coming into the Open – but it is just what happened when he got there that he would rather forget.

“At the end of the day I guess I’m very happy,” he said. “I’ve got to be happy with what I achieved. It was the maximum to go to get at this tournament, especially after the Millman and the Sandgren match.

“Today was horrible, to go through what I did. Nice entrance, nice send-off, and in between is one to forget because you know you have a 3 per cent chance to win. You know, got to go for it. You never know. But once you can see it coming, that it’s not going to work anymore, it’s tough.

“I think I overall played all right. I know I can play better. At the same time, I also know I can play much worse. With no tournaments beforehand, I think it’s a very, very good result.”

As for Djokovic, he now prepares for the final as the experienced and serial grand slam winner. His opponent in Sunday’s final will be either Dominic Thiem, twice a runner-up to Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros, or Sascha Zverev who has never reached a grand slam semi-final before, much less a final. So what is the secret ingredient that turns the promising young talent into the relentless winner?

“Patience,” Djokovic said with a knowing smile. “When you’re young, you want everything right away and there’s no waiting. You dream of becoming a top player and Dominic Thiem and Alex Zverev are some of the best young players that play this game and have high goals and ambitions. And definitely they have the potential to be there.

“But I think one thing that I was lacking when I was younger was patience and just trusting the process a little bit more. At times I was rushing too much and getting frustrated about details and small things in life. But that’s how you learn.”

And as he spoke, it became clear: he had just dismissed the greatest player the game has ever seen; if Domi or Sascha want to get their hands on a major trophy, they are going to have to be patient because Djokovic ain’t going to let them anywhere near the Norman Brookes trophy on Sunday.

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