NEW YORK—You might have been tempted, especially with college football back in our lives, to call Roger Federer’s match against John Millman a “trap game.” With Novak Djokovic awaiting the winner in the US Open quarterfinals, fans and media were already clearing their Wednesday evenings for a late-summer tennis treat: Game 7 of the Serb vs. the Swiss at Flushing Meadows. Federer won their first three meetings at the hard-court major; Djokovic answered with three wins of his own. It was a US Open Series that has actually generated widespread interest.
But that would mean that Federer, the overwhelming favorite in this contest under the lights—he was 40-0 at the Open against players ranked outside the Top 50—was actually looking ahead to a marquee quarterfinal. Fact is, Federer wasn’t capable of looking ahead a single point, let alone another round, on Monday night turned Tuesday morning.
In one of the more stunning results in Grand Slam memory, Millman, who had lost all 10 matches he’d played against Top 10 opponents, defeated Federer, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3), in a fourth-rounder that was more surreal than competitive. That was primarily because of Federer—lethargic to the point of concern on another humid night in Flushing Meadows—and a stretch of play that must go down as one of the poorest of his career.
“I just thought it was very hot tonight,” explained Federer, who was drenched in sweat from the onset. “Was just one of those nights where I guess I felt I couldn't get air. There was no circulation at all. I don't know, for some reason I just struggled in the conditions tonight. It's one of the first times it's happened to me."
Federer added this: "At some point, also I was just happy that the match was over, I guess.”
Federer’s serve, an often-forgotten weapon in his arsenal, was simply forgettable tonight. He landed just 49 percent of first serves and struck 10 double faults—yet he still managed to win 81 percent of first-serve points. His groundstrokes weren’t as forgiving. Indecisive with his forehand (and off target with his backhand), Federer’s signature shot was invariably struck with too much pace, the only question being its terminus: on the net, or outside the sidelines.
Worse yet may have been Federer’s volleys, which looked like mine on key points. He came to the net 81 times, more a necessity for his shortcomings from the baseline than a veritable strategy. He won 50 of those points, but he always seemed rushed in his approaches. The signs were there at the beginning of the three-hour and 34-minute match: Federer stoned two volleys on his first two set points in the first set, before converting his third.
Federer had set points in the second and third sets, as well—but he lost both sets. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Federer less confident in his abilities than in this match, and for that, credit must go to Millman. The 29-year-old Aussie, who has practiced with Federer in the past, was a jackrabbit in the soppy conditions.
“John was able to deal with it better,” said Federer. “He maybe comes from one of the most humid places on earth, Brisbane. I knew I was in for a tough one. Maybe when you feel like that, as well, you start missing chances, and I had those. That was disappointing.”
Millman forced Federer to overhit by covering the court with verve. He made Federer pay on countless drop-shot attempts, finding open space for an easy reply put-away. After willingly engaging in extended rallies with spin-heavy groundies, Millman had a propensity to open up the point with inside-out forehands. His shots were struck cleanly all night—Millman racked up 47 winners to 28 unforced errors (Federer had a ratio of 65 to 76)—and they were reliable in pressure situations.
“I felt very comfortable as the match went on,” said Millman. “I can't really remember a time when I was nervous or letting the moment get the better of me. Really just kind of playing each point. I wasn't letting my mind kind of run away with me a little bit.”
The match changed when Federer earned set points at 5-4, 40-15 of the second set. It was a set that included a 14-minute, 24-point hold in which Federer saved six break points. There was no indication that Federer’s game would fall off a cliff shortly after.
But that it did. Steady yet opportunistic, Millman would take advantage, winning the last three games of the second set, winning the last two points of the third set—after saving a set point with a 100-m.p.h. second serve–and letting Federer self-destruct in the fourth-set tiebreaker. It was Federer’s Greatest Anti-Hits: from 1-0, he smacked a forehand into net, carved a slice into net and struck two double faults. The match was effectively over.
The “trap game” comparison was true in one regard: Millman played the role of the plucky underdog perfectly. He gave Federer an unexpected challenge, earned support from the crowd, and made viewers realize, after it was all said and done, that he was the worst possible opponent for the favorite on this night.
“I love his intensity,” said Federer of Millman. “He reminds me of David Ferrer and those other guys that, you know, I admire a lot when I see them, when I see how they train, the passion they have for the game.
“He's got a positive demeanor about himself on and off the court. I think he's got a great backhand that he can protect very well down the line and cross-court. When you attack there in the wrong way, he will punish you, punish you every time for it.”
As Millman moves on to face Djokovic, Federer’s dry spell at the US Open extends to 10 years. After winning five consecutive titles from 2004-08, Federer has come up agonizingly short in semifinals (to Djokovic in 2010 and 2011, both times holding match points) and finals (to Juan Martin del Potro in 2009—a performance he's publicly regretted—and to Djokovic in 2015). He’s also suffered two of his earliest Grand Slam exits in New York, both in the fourth round, to Tommy Robredo in 2013 and to Millman tonight.
Much has changed at the US Open since Federer last lifted the winner’s trophy, including the addition of a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium. It’s a structure that, in Federer’s mind, has changed the complexion of the event.
“I do believe since the roof is on that there is no air circulation in the stadium,” he said. “I think just that makes it a totally different US Open.
“Plus conditions maybe were playing slower this year on top of it. You have soaking wet pants, soaking wet everything. The balls are in there, too. You try to play. Everything gets slower as you try to hit winners.”
Federer was describing himself, but he could have also been talking about Millman, who simply dealt the with conditions better, even if it looked like he was wearing a polished leather jacket on the court.
In a black shirt submerged in sweat, Millman admitted to ESPN’s Brad Gilbert that he was “probably in a little bit of disbelief” about what happened, and that Federer wasn’t at his best—but that he’d still take it. It sounded like a tenet of Winning Ugly, Gilbert’s tennis book, which the 55th-ranked Millman told the former pro he'd read.
“I felt a little bit guilty today because he didn't have his best day, and that's for sure,” said Millman. “I know that. I'm very aware he didn't have a great day in the office. Probably to beat him I needed him to have an off day and I needed to have a decent, good day.”
Losing Ugly, by Roger Federer? For one night only, Federer fans hope.
“Our career paths are slightly different,” Millman said, “but I'll enjoy this moment.”
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