We're counting down the Top 10 matches of 2020 from Nov. 30 through Dec. 11. Click here to read each selection.
I know what you’re thinking: “This match happened in 2020?”
Yes, Roger Federer’s Houdini-like run to the semifinals at the Australian Open happened this year. Like everything else that took place before the pandemic lockdowns, it feels as if it comes from a different era. And it does—the 15,000 fans packed into Rod Laver Arena to cheer on the Maestro’s miraculous comeback over Tennys Sandgren prove it. This match is from that bygone era when crowds could gather freely, and no social distancing was required. Who knew that it would soon be a thing of the past?
But Federer’s run, and in particular this final leg of it, shouldn’t be forgotten. It was this era’s equivalent of Jimmy Connors’ much-more-celebrated ride to the semifinals at the 1991 US Open. Federer, like Connors, was 38. And like Connors, he had to stage multiple head-spinning comebacks to make it to the semis. Of course, Federer didn’t add quite as many flourishes as Jimbo: there were no pelvic thrusts, no fists raised high, no fingers pointed toward the four sides of the stadium, no telling the world, “This is what they paid for.” And unlike Connors, Federer’s achievement didn’t land him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Which is only to Federer’s credit, of course: Even at 38, we still expected him to go deep at the Slams.
In Australia, Federer exceeded our expectations. In the third round, he pulled off his first Melbourne Miracle: Down 4-8 in the 10-point, fifth-set tiebreaker against John Millman, Federer reeled off the last six points of the match. He did it with a subtle tactical shift. After watching Millman hit two straight running forehand passes, Federer didn’t let him have a chance at another. Instead, he went to the drop shot, moved Millman around, and dared him to beat him from the baseline. The Aussie couldn’t do it.
Then there was the Sandgren match, the Melbourne Miracle II, which was even harder to fathom than the Millman win. By the start of the fourth set, Federer was down two sets to one, his back appeared to be ailing him, his first-serve speed had dropped into the 90s, he had been warned for an audible obscenity, and his opponent was rifling winners past him and breaking his serve virtually at will. Federer’s box of supporters didn’t look nervous; they looked glum, as if they knew the end was nigh.
The end was indeed nigh, but it never actually arrived. Sandgren reached match point seven times; seven times Federer fought him off. He didn’t save these match points the way he usually does, with unreturnable first serves. He escaped much the same way he had escaped Millman: By keeping the ball in play and forcing Sandgren to finish it.
Until that point, the American, ranked No. 100 in the world at the time, had been swinging freely and creating winners from all angles and locations. Sandgren would finish with 27 aces and 73 winners, to just 44 from Federer. But Sandgren’s final swing didn’t come as freely. Instead of pulling the trigger on his match points, he mostly rallied. On a different day, this might not have been a bad strategy; Federer doesn’t usually win by out-steadying his opponents. Except that this time, with the match on the line, he did. Bad back or not, Federer didn’t miss, and eventually Sandgren did. The one time Sandgren made it to the net, Federer didn’t miss his passing shot, either.
“I feel a bit bad in a way because I didn’t feel like he did anything really wrong,” Federer said. “It’s just luck at some point. I’ve been on the other side, as well.”
Sandgren managed to find some humor in defeat afterward, tweeting, “What’s the rule here folks, a double shot for each match point you didn’t convert?”
"These ones just sting, and they hurt,” Federer said. “I could have blinked at the wrong time and shanked. That would have been it.”
But Federer didn’t blink, and he didn’t shank, and that wasn’t it. His 2020 Aussie Open—part Houdini, part Jimbo—continued into the semifinals, where he lost to Novak Djokovic.
Federer wouldn’t say it, but it was still true: This was what his fans had paid for; this was what they wanted. Now the question is: Will the Maestro wave his wand long enough for them to gather and watch him do it in person again?