Roger Federer lives to win titles, but five-set thrillers like his epic against John Millman at the Australian Open are also a key reason why he is still playing aged 38.
The Swiss master looked out for the count at 4-8 down in a nailbiting fifth-set super tiebreaker against the gutsy Australian, but somehow found a way back to clinch the third-round clash 4-6, 7-6 (7/2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (10/8).
Shocks kept rolling throughout the third round including the ouster of Serena Williams, reigning champion Naomi Osaka, next-gen torch bearer Stefanos Tsitsipas and world number two Karolina Pliskova.
Pliskova bombed out to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Saturday (January 25), which the Russian won 7-6 (7/4), 7-6 (7/3) for her first victory over the Czech second seed.
As for Tsitsipas, he was sent crashing out of the Grand Slam by Milos Raonic on Friday (January 24), with the giant Canadian’s power serve doing the damage.
The Greek star, widely tipped as a contender to challenge the big guns at the opening Grand Slam of the year, was no match for his experienced opponent, slumping 7-5, 6-4, 7-6 (7/2).
Federer’s ‘epic’ motivation
Federer admitted it was “extremely difficult” and he went through the full gamut of emotions. But that is how he likes it.
He said the electric atmosphere on Rod Laver Arena and the thrill of a match that stretched for more than four hours was part of why he continues to play.
“Yeah, no doubt. I mean, at the moment itself, it’s very gruelling and, at times, very disappointing when you are in situations where you get broken in the fifth or you’re down in the super breaker and lose the first set,” said the 20-time Grand Slam winner.
“That’s when you really start wondering, why couldn’t I close this match earlier and all these things? Then all of a sudden you turn the whole thing around within, like, two minutes and it was so worthwhile, everything that I have gone through,” he added.
After 22 years of Grand Slam tennis, he said his motivation remained strong “because of winning titles, trying to win as many matches as possible, enjoy myself out on court”.
“But also being in epic matches like this. It doesn’t always have to be finals. As long as the crowds are into it, you have a great battle with an opponent who you really admire and respect, it’s a good feeling. I’m happy I had that match. I hope I would feel the same way also if I would have lost, to be honest,” he added.
Federer had played 53 five-setters in his storied career before meeting Millman, winning 30 and losing 23, but few could match the intensity of the battle on Friday evening.
Millman is one of the fittest players on tour and memorably beat Federer over four tight sets in the round of 16 at the US Open in 2018.
“That’s why I mumbled something to him at the net just saying, ‘I have so much respect for you, and it’s such a pity, I’m so sorry, but well played’,” said the Swiss star.
Federer next faces unseeded Hungarian Marton Fucsovics as he guns for a place in his 15th Australian Open quarter-final.
What does Pliskova, Williams and Osaka’s departure mean?
The result means that two of the top three seeds are now out of the women’s draw after third-ranked Osaka fell to 15-year-old American Coco Gauff on Friday.
Williams, the seven-time Melbourne champion who was seeking a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title, was stunned by China’s Wang Qiang.
“I don’t know what to say, of course I’m really happy but I won’t really realise that until later. It was a lot of fun and I actually really enjoyed it,” said Pavlyuchenkova, a quarter-finalist last year and in 2017.
Pliskova won this month’s WTA Brisbane title, beating Osaka on the way, but she was always under pressure against 30th seed Pavlyuchenkova in hot conditions on the Melbourne centre court.
They exchanged breaks in each set but Pavlyuchenkova had the edge in both tie-breakers, taking the win after 2hrs 25mins when Pliskova netted a forehand.
“I love this game (tennis) and that’s what drives me, I appreciate more what I have now. I am hungry and motivated so hopefully can achieve more. I love the heat, even though everyone says you’re from Russia and love cold weather, I don’t, I hate it!” Pavlyuchenkova said.
The Russian will play former champion, Angelique Kerber, in the last 16 as she attempts to reach the last eight for the third time.
Tsitsipas out, who’s next?
Expectations were high for the 21-year-old, who stunned Roger Federer in 2019 en route to the final four, before winning titles in Marseille and Estoril and at the season-ending ATP Finals in London.
But Raonic had his measure, pumping down almost unplayable 220 kph (136 mph) serves while smashing 19 aces and 55 winners.
“Today was an incredible match for me. I’m really happy with how things went,” said Raonic.
“I enjoy the energy here. To be healthy and playing well, I take a lot of pleasure out of that.”
His win set up a mouthwatering fourth-round clash against 2018 finalist Marin Cilic, who battled past ninth seed Roberto Bautista Agut in five gruelling sets.
Raonic has form at Melbourne Park, reaching the semi-final in 2016, when he lost to Andy Murray, and the quarters on three other occasions, including last year to make it his most successful Grand Slam.
But his career has been plagued by injuries, with surgeries over the years for hip, foot and wrist problems. He has also struggled with back, ankle, calf and knee issues which have stymied his progress.
But seeded 32, his lowest ever at a Slam, he turned back the clock against Tsitsipas, who had a bye in the second round when his German opponent Philipp Kohlschreiber pulled out injured.
Raonic is feared for his big serve and he sent down plenty of aces in the first set to set the tone, with the Greek desperately defending and unable to create chances.
It was more of the same in the second and third sets as the Canadian, looking for his first title since Brisbane 2016, turned the screws.
(With inputs from agencies)