MELBOURNE—You might think that Roger Federer wouldn’t have much left to show a tennis fan at this point. He’s 31, he’s won 17 majors, and he’s been making our heads shake and our eyes bug out for more than a decade. Yet, as Federer proved again in his 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-1 victory over Bernard Tomic here tonight, he still has the capacity to surprise and startle. Which I guess is how it should be. You don’t expect the RF just to keep winning, like any other earnest, plodding veteran who needs the cash, do you? It wouldn’t be the same if he couldn’t do a little gobsmacking along the way.
I thought I’d seen pretty much everything from Federer, from marathon comeback wins to front-facing tweeners. Maybe it was the challenge of playing the new punk on the tennis block, Bernard Tomic; the word before the match was that Federer was especially pumped up for this one. Maybe it was the fresh pleasure of starting a new season after a couple months of rest. But at the end of the second set, after a series of games that had escalated to dizzying heights of quality on both sides of the court, Federer threw down the most determined and brilliant passage of pressure tennis that I’ve seen from him in a long time. It felt like he was doing what the great athletes say they love to do the most: Proving himself all over again.
After the match, Federer said that he felt like he was going to lose the second-set tiebreaker, in part because he had squandered so many earlier chances to get ahead in that set. He had earned a break point at 1-1; three more at 4-4; and two more at 5-5, one of which came after a side-to-side-and-back-again defensive masterpiece. Bernie erased them all. With clutch serves, a flat-out mindset, and skidding, penetrating ground strokes, the Aussie at last came up with the type of tennis he had always claimed he could play.
Federer pushed the set to a tiebreaker with a little flourish of his own, holding serve at 5-6 with not one, but two feathery crosscourt forehand drop volleys. Still, it was Tomic who had the momentum, as well as the crowd—this was one of the rare audiences anywhere that wasn’t in Federer’s corner. Tomic stuck a terrific forehand pass up the line for 2-0. He hit a service winner and a forehand winner for 4-1. When Federer took the balls to serve, an Aussie commentator here said that he had to have both points, or the set was over. The way Tomic was playing, it was hard to argue.
Federer knew it too; so, naturally, he made two first serves and won both points. Another Tomic service winner made it 5-3. The next rally, at 28 shots, was the longest of this rapid-fire, punch-or-get-punched summer-lightning match. Each man staged an attack and put up a defense; then they settled in at the baseline for a dozen shots. Finally Tomic went for a forehand, a stroke he hit for 21 winners on the night. This time he missed it wide. He remembered the point, and winced at the memory.
“We had a lot of long rallies at that [4-1] period,” Tomic said. “He played some good tennis just to get back. I had a chance there and I missed it. It would have been huge; unfortunately he got me.”
At 4-5, another sharp rally ensued, which Federer ended with an inside-in forehand winner. At 5-5, Tomic sent a forehand long. At 6-5, after one more full-throttle back-and-forth, Federer forced his way forward and watched a last backhand from Tomic sail over the baseline.
Federer has made comebacks in tiebreakers and put together sensational runs of shots and points before, but in this one it felt just slightly diffferent, as if he was refusing to lose. I had a feeling he sensed that, despite the score, the moment was his to rise to. His opponent, as much as he might have improved, and as big as he had talked, was still vulnerable to a quick strike that would finish the set and the match. Federer was right. Tomic went quickly in the third.
Afterward, each player seemed satisfied with his performance.
“I thought it was a really good match,” Tomic said. “It came down to one point.”
That was, characteristically, an exaggeration. In truth, while Bernie did play well, and played as aggressively and bravely as anyone had ever seen him, he won just one more game than he won against Rafael Nadal in this round in 2011, and three more than he won against Federer last year.
As Federer said of Tomic tonight, it’s about what he does once he leaves Australia. “He’s had a great run now,” Federer said. “I hope he knows what he needs to do the next few months, weeks, and years ahead. It ain’t a two-month tour. We play 10, 11 months of the year, it’s bring it every single day.”
As for his own play, Federer hit 46 winners against 20 errors and was 26 of 30 at the net—immaculate numbers by anyone’s standards. Still, it was too early in the tournament for him to get too excited.
“I thought it was a good match overall,” Federer said. “I thought the intensity was good...I really enjoyed myself out there.”
He was asked if there were certain shots of his that surprised even him. He demurred, in his way:
“No,” he said, “I’ve seen and felt myself playing so many times that I feel I didn’t come up with a shot that I never hit before in my life. But we had some great ones, and I had to be able to bring the whole repertoire to the court today.”
That’s about right. Federer didn’t pull off any single unprecedented shot, but he needed everything he had. He saw his moment and did what was necessary to take it. In this match, what was necessary was often something amazing. Tomic certainly had a sense of deja vu about it all. He said that he had tried, as he walked on court, to block out who he was playing. But in the introductions, as the PA announcer began listing Federer's many achievements, Tomic couldn't keep up the facade.
"Oh, crap," he thought, "It's Roger."
For me, though, it wasn’t the shots or the result—his 250th win at a Grand Slam—that felt unique. It was Federer's particular mix of determination and creativity in stealing that tiebreaker, and proving himself all over again.