MELBOURNE – What a Friday it had been. Three past Australian Open champions, each once number one in the world—Caroline Wozniacki, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka—had been bundled out. Ditto for flashy past Australian Open semifinalists, Madison Keys and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Now it was Roger Federer’s turn to stare at the exit. He had long conquered the world, but tonight—wait a second, it was now past midnight—he had struggled to shake off John Millman, an Aussie who personified his homeland’s sporting principle: leave blood or don’t bother. Those assets had helped Millman beat Federer at the 2018 US Open.
Said Federer, “He's just so, so tough from the baseline. He's got sort of good speed on the backhand, on the forehand. The way he hits it makes it, for me, unsure if I should pull the trigger or I shouldn't. Is it there to be hit or not?”
Millman won the first set 6-4. Federer took the next two, 7-6 (2), 6-4. But a dogged Millman grabbed the fourth, 6-4, and had even gone up a break in the fifth.
It was now 6-all. As had happened in the Wimbledon final last summer, this match would conclude with a tiebreaker, in this case, first to ten.
Millman served at 5-4 and then performed feats worthy of, well, Roger Federer. A clipped backhand volley for 6-4. A forehand pass up the line for 7-4. A sharply angled forehand crosscourt pass for 8-4. True to another Aussie tenet—fitness—Millman looked as if he could have played three more sets. Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt, himself once a victor over Federer on this very court, cheered on his compatriot.
Federer served at 4-8 and rapidly came in on a sharp crosscourt backhand that Millman barely reached and struck wide. On the next two points, Millman missed a makeable backhand and forehand.
“The air gets so incredibly thin,” said Federer. “And you know that any over-hitting, too much risk or just handing over a point at this moment will cost you dearly.”
At 7-8, Federer walked the tightrope as only he can. Seventeen shots into the rally, Federer feathered a backhand drop shot. Genius or idiot? In came Millman, daisy fresh of legs, but perhaps tight of head. Long went the forehand. Said Federer, “It's a very, very tight balance you have to choose there.”
At 8-all, momentum had shifted. Back to basics it was for Federer: Serve wide to the forehand, approach deep to the backhand. Long went the Millman lob.
At 8-9, match point for Federer, Millman blasted an inside-out forehand extremely hard to the Federer backhand. A flailing Federer barely stabbed back a floater. Again, Millman lined up a forehand, this time inside-in. But here he went to the Federer forehand with minimal depth or velocity. Standing in the right place, Federer was perfectly positioned to roll a crosscourt forehand winner. “Left it all out there,” said Millman. “Didn’t win.”
If it didn’t rank among Federer’s most elegant wins, it surely was satisfying for the Swiss to win a fifth set at a Slam for the first time since his win in the finals here in 2018. Since that victory, there’d been two losses from match point up at Wimbledon—Kevin Anderson in ’18, Novak Djokovic in ’19—and another at the hands of Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals of the US Open.
Prior to those six incredible points, it was easy to wonder if these were the kind of nights that make a man as experienced as the 38-year-old Federer tired of the tennis life. Then everything had changed.
“I think if I do play tennis it's 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,” said Federer. “Doesn't always have to be finals, I guess. 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 tonight. I hope I would feel the same way also if I would have lost, to be honest.”
But even someone as balanced as Federer would have a hard time feeling so magnanimous. Instead, past 2:00 a.m. this Saturday morning, Roger Federer headed to sleep, comforted to know that soon enough, on Sunday to be exact, he, not the gritty Millman, would have the chance to play another tennis match.