MELBOURNE—Harry Houdini, master of the greatest escapes, has a new rival. His name is Roger Federer. For the second time in the last three matches, Federer stood millimeters from the abyss. Friday night he’d been down 8-4 in the decisive tiebreaker versus rough-and-tumble Aussie John Millman. This Tuesday afternoon, into early evening, American Tennys Sandgren was the gravedigger. Again, Federer escaped, fighting off seven match points in the fourth set to win this quarterfinal, 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-3.
An injured groin had greatly hindered Federer in everything from the weight and depth of his groundstrokes, serving speed and mobility. For long patches of this match, Federer, adored for his ability to slow down time and elude mortality, had given us a disturbing, sober glance at the ghost of Roger future.
For most of those match points, Federer morphed into that crafty old man at your recreational tennis facility, the one with enough technique and experience to keep the ball in the court, resist flirting with the lines, throw in several soft slices and give his youthful opponent the chance to miss. It also helped that six of those seven came on Federer’s serve.
But the match point Sandgren had when serving, at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, was a gem. Sandgren approached to the Federer backhand. Federer rolled his pass crosscourt. Sandgren opted to volley crosscourt, back to the Federer backhand. Holding his balance just well enough, Federer ripped one down-the-line, forcing Sangdren to lunge and pop up a forehand volley. Hobbled as Federer had been, at least his eyes remained vigilant. In he ran, rolling a swing volley into the court.
“In hindsight,” said Sandgren, “[I should have] played the volley to the open court. But I also didn't want to see a classic Roger Federer running forehand passing shot. So I thought I would play it strong cross, and he hit a great pass.”
At 8-all in that tiebreak, Federer hung in the rally just long enough for Sandgren to flag a forehand wide. On the next point, a Federer lob led to Sandgren hitting an overhead well long.
Federer’s groin had begun to ache in the second set. Sandgren may not be the most technically elegant player, but certainly he is dogged and alert enough to sense weakness. Throughout the second and third sets, Sandgren commanded the court with solid depth and exceptional movement.
So distraught was Federer that in the third set, he swore in a language he called “a mix.” A linesperson, overhearing Federer’s profanity, reported the infraction to chair umpire Marijana Veljovic (this was all in the rules). Veljovic gave Federer a warning.
But as each match point vanished, Sandgren learned a cruel lesson: If you strike a king, you must kill him. He knew it too. “You can't give a good player, let alone maybe the best player ever, that many chances to come back,” said Sandgren. “They're going to find their game and start playing well. That seemed to me what happened.”
“So for the most time there I thought that was it,” said Federer. “Of course, there's little sparkles where maybe not, then you're like, no, it is over. Only maybe when I won that fourth set did I really think that maybe this whole thing could turn around.”
Lively all afternoon, once the fifth began, Rod Laver Arena kicked into even higher gear. The third match of the day on these major stadiums can be enthralling. The fans, filled to the brim with food, drink, sunscreen and tennis, grow eager for a grand denouement. Lengthening shadows add to the drama. A feisty underdog had threatened an icon. Just when the darkness appeared to claim Federer, he had been spared and earned the chance to play a fifth. “I was incredibly lucky today,” said Federer.
At 0-1, Sandgren fought off two break points. But at 2-3, 30-love, he feebly netted an easy backhand. At 30-15, despite having driven his two-hander well all day, Sandgren sliced twice, the second sloppily and long. At 30-all, a double-fault. On the break point, Federer again was the wise man, giving himself plenty of margin over the net. Sandgren, clearly tight, armed a two-hander well long.
Now it was Federer’s turn to perform the burial. At 4-2, he held comfortably at 15. As Federer attempted to close it out at 5-3, Sandgren made life hard, going up 15-30. But three good serves down the middle – including a gutsy serve-volley at 30-all – took Federer to victory and his 16th Australian Open semi.
It was 6:45 p.m. The start of the night session, due to start in 15 minutes, would be delayed. As Sandgren left the court, the crowd applauded heartily. There came an even louder cheer for the victor. For so much of the match, Federer had looked so old, an aged ruler. Now he was young again, primed to seize the throne. His next opponent, either Novak Djokovic or Milos Raonic, would be decided later, a matter of the head to be pondered much later.
At this point, all Federer occupied was the singular moment of the heart that accompanies victory. As he finished his post-match interview, Federer said, “I don’t even know what time it is.”