Celebrating Millmania: John Millman was ready for his unlikely moment

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NEW YORK—Is the world ready for Millmania?

Yes, it’s a thing, or it was a thing. In 2013, when John Millman won a first-round match at his home tournament in Brisbane, a local reporter coined the phrase Millmania to describe the reaction in the area. The Aussie’s new fans even got their own nickname: Millminions.

You see, this wasn’t just any-first-round win. It was the first time, after seven years on tour, that Millman had won an ATP main-draw match.

Then, in the second round, Millman lost to Andy Murray. As far as I know, that was the end of Millmania.

Five years later, the tennis world at large may finally be ready to embrace the phenomenon. On Monday night at the US Open, the 29-year-old Millman, who has never been ranked higher than No. 49, pulled off the biggest win possible, on the biggest stage possible: A 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3) stunner over Roger Federer in a night match in Arthur Ashe Stadium. As if that wasn’t enough, Millman then made himself relatable to sports fans all over America when he said he had to get up at 7 A.M. for an NFL fantasy draft and he couldn’t decide whether to take Todd Gurley or Le’Veon Bell with the second overall pick.

Like last time, Millmania may only last for a couple of days; his reward for beating Federer is a quarterfinal encounter with Novak Djokovic. But it should be celebrated anyway. While few outside of tennis had any idea who Millman was before last night, he has long been one of the most popular figures inside the game. Even after a decade on tour, even after seven years without an ATP-level win, even after shoulder, groin and hip injuries sent him to the sidelines, he retains an infectious enthusiasm for the sport and the work that goes with it. Millman is also an intelligent guy whose TV commentary on the game is always enlightening.

Most of all, Millman should be credited for holding his nerve, and holding steady, against Federer last night. By the second set, it was apparent that Federer, sweating heavily and slumping in his sideline chair during changeovers, wasn’t right physically. Later he confirmed that the high humidity made it hard for him to breathe. Suddenly given the opportunity of a lifetime, many players would have been unable to cross the finish line. It wasn’t as if Federer, despite his struggles and his attempts to end points quickly, couldn’t play at all. Millman still had to win the match.

Millman still had to come up with passing shots when Federer barreled forward, and he did that brilliantly. He still had to break serve at the end of the second set, sneak away with the third-set tiebreaker 9-7, and come back from a break down in the fourth set and close out another tiebreaker. Millman still had to deal with the unexpected enormity of the moment, and keep the large pro-Federer crowd out of it.

In that sense, Federer was playing the wrong opponent for what ailed him. Millman isn’t flashy, but he is steady, with a forehand and two-handed backhand that are sturdily built. He’s also smart and level-headed and not prone to mental meltdowns. All of those traits, which have traditionally made Australians such strong competitors, served him well last night. As the match went on, Millman barked at his coach more, but his shots stayed calm.

“I’ve never played anyone’s reputation,” Millman said. “That’s been a constant for me, ever since I started the game.”

“It was a slightly intimidating environment. At the start I don’t think I was playing so well. But as the match went on, I felt more comfortable, felt pretty good.”

“I’m just glad, you know, I took the chance today.”

Millman said Federer is a hero of his, and they’ve had their share of conversations and practice sessions together over the years. He acknowledged that Federer “didn’t have a great day in the office,” and that he felt “a little bit guilty” about taking advantage of that. When Federer’s last forehand sailed long, Millman just put his head down and walked to the net.

Millman sounded the way millions of tennis fans felt: Sad to see the 37-year-old legend laid low in a way he’d never been laid low before. Monday’s performance may or may not be a sign of Federer’s ultimate decline, but it is a sign that he’s mortal. That fact might seem obvious, and it would seem obvious with just about anyone else. But it was still a shock to be reminded that it’s true for Federer, too. The quiet that came over Arthur Ashe Stadium, where it is never quiet, was the reaction of an audience watching a great dancer who couldn’t get off the ground. Federer’s body was there, but the liveliness had gone out of it, and the magic had gone out of his racquet. This time it was Federer who lost the big points, who let leads slip and drilled easy volleys into the net. This time it was his unheralded opponent, Millman, who took charge when it mattered.

“Even in some bigger matches that I’ve played,” Millman said, “I’ve always felt as if I’ve done a good job of not letting the moment get the better of me.”

When his moment finally came after 10 years on tour, he was ready. Millmania may not last longer than 15 minutes, but it will have been well-earned.

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