Roger Federer has faced most top players on tour but never his Australian Open quarter-final opponent Tenny Sandgren, and he is wary of the American as he attempts to set up a potential last-four clash against Novak Djokovic.
The Swiss great swept into the last eight for a record 15th time at Melbourne Park after a first-set wobble against unheralded Hungarian Martin Fucsovics.
He now goes toe-to-toe on Tuesday (January 28) with the last American in the men’s draw who has belied his 100 world ranking by beating eighth seed Matteo Berrettini and 12th seed Fabio Fognini.
Meanwhile, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep surged into the quarter-finals on Monday (January 26) with a straight-sets victory over 16th seed Elise Mertens.
The fourth seed won 6-4 6-4 and plays Estonian 28th seed Anett Kontaveit or unseeded Polish teenager, Iga Swiatek, in the last eight in Melbourne.
Federer has never played the 28-year-old and is not underestimating the challenge as he looks to win his first Grand Slam since Melbourne in 2018 and seventh in Australia.
“I wonder why he’s not ranked higher, to be honest. Every time I see him play, I feel like he plays very well. He’s got a lot of stuff in his game that he’s deserving of being higher,” said the world number three.
The Australian Open is Sandgren’s favourite Major and he came from nowhere to make the quarter-finals in 2018, eventually losing to South Korea’s Chung Hyeon.
“I didn’t follow him that closely. I mean, I remember he played Chung in the quarters the last time I played the semis, to play Chung with his blisters and all that. I remember watching that closely because I was going to maybe play the winner,” he said.
Federer, who is chasing a 21st Grand Slam title, was also watching as Sandgren tamed firebrand Italian Fognini on Sunday.
“It was impressive how he was competing. I’m looking forward to a tough one.”
The odds are heavily stacked in the 38-year-old’s favour. Of the 14 Australian Open quarter-finals he has made, Federer has won them all.
Sandgren said he was just happy to have another chance at a big tournament.
“Getting to play in a big stadium, getting to play in front of a lot of people, because I’ve played a lot of tennis in front of the very few people, the fact I get to do that seems to bring out the best tennis in me. It seems if I play pretty well, I have a shot,” he said.
At stake is a semi-final against either second seed Djokovic or Canadian Milos Raonic.
The Serbian has been in fine touch as he targets a record eighth title and a 17th Slam crown, but he has his work cut out against one of the biggest servers in the game. So far Raonic, who has failed to beat Djokovic in nine previous attempts, has played 59 service games and is yet to be broken, pumping down 82 aces.
“Obviously it’s a huge advantage when you hit serves from that height. You can hit any angle, anything you really want,” said Djokovic.
“That puts a lot of pressure on your opponent.” He said fellow big servers John Isner and Ivo Karlovic perhaps had the edge on Raonic, but the Canadian was a better mover around court.
“If the returner gets the ball back in play, then I think Raonic is better than these two guys. But I feel like maybe you could read his serve better than Isner and Karlovic,” he said.
Raonic has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, but has found success in Melbourne, reaching the semi-finals in 2016 and the quarters three other times, including last year.
“I think we play quite opposite from each other, and he’s done a good job in the past neutralising my serve. So I have really got to focus on my things well and be the one dictating,” said the 32nd seed of Djokovic.
Halep’s quarter-final challenge
Former world number one Halep, beaten in the 2018 final by Caroline Wozniacki, has not dropped a set in four matches in Melbourne and the Romanian looks in ominous form.
With her win, the 28-year-old will rise from third to second in the rankings.
“I had to calm myself down because when I get a little bit nervous I get crazy on court so I had to stay cool, to get energy from the box and play without looking back,” she said, after some anxious moments in the second set.
After top seed Ashleigh Barty, Halep — last year’s Wimbledon champion and a former French Open winner — is the highest remaining seed left in the draw.
Second seed Karolina Pliskova, holder and third seed Naomi Osaka, and history-chasing Serena Williams were among six top-10 seeds who lost in the third round.
Halep defeated Belgium’s Mertens in two of their three previous meetings, including in the last 16 of the French Open in 2018, when she went on to win the title.
But Mertens prevailed the last time they met when she came from a set down in the final in Doha last year.
Halep drew first blood at a sunny Rod Laver Arena when she broke Mertens at the fourth break-point opportunity and consolidated for a 3-1 lead.
The 24-year-old Mertens, whose best performance at a Grand Slam came in reaching the Australian Open semi-finals in 2018, broke back and then stubbornly held serve for 4-3.
But Halep broke again for 5-4 and converted the fourth set point when Mertens put a forehand into the net.
The Romanian began the second set with intent, breaking for another early lead, but Mertens would not go quietly, breaking back as she piled on the pressure.
The ninth game proved pivotal, as Halep finally got the break at the fifth opportunity before serving out the match.
(With inputs from agencies)