January 24, 2018
Roger Federer survived a serious first-set scare and a brief argument with the umpire to come through in style against Tomas Berdych.
The great man disputed a Hawkeye verdict and let off some steam – but it seemed to help him in the long run, even though he came perilously close to losing the first set in that ninth game of the match.
Federer explained: ‘I hung around. I got a bit lucky, a bit angry, a bit frustrated with the umpire. I thought the call was right anyway and he was probably right to take the call away, but it was good to let some of the frustration out.’
There will be no room for early nerves next time against Hyeon Chung, the ruthless South Korean 21-year-old. Federer will have to steel himself from the get-go to avoid a similar first-set slide.
The reigning Aussie Open champion was 2-5 down and later faced two set points before taking the opener with an emphatic tie-break.
Berdych had his first chance at 5-3, when his ace left Federer on the brink. Instead the stubborn Swiss recovered with a backhand return and went on to break.
Even after Federer won three games in a row to level, he wasn’t clear of the danger. Berdych edged ahead at 6-5 and then Roger wobbled. Two errors and then a double fault handed the Czech his second set point. But there was anxiety in the way the underdog handled his latest opportunity, and crucially he sent his backhand too long.
That, in essence, was the last sniff of a serious chance that Berdych had in the match. Federer completely bossed the tie-break, showing yet again that on the biggest points, his mentality is super-strong. Berdych crumbled when faced with such nerveless brilliance – the result 7-1.
Federer had slapped 24 winners, but he had also smudged 18 unforced errors in that first set, showing how unusually vulnerable he had been at times. Once steadied, he was beautifully destructive for the rest of the match, though. He completed a 7-6 (7-1), 6-3, 6-4 victory almost as though the outcome had never been in doubt.
But would Hyeon Chung let Federer off the hook, if gifted a similar early opportunity during their semi-final? Doubtful, because the young Asian is playing without the normal nerves of a newcomer on the big stage. He seems completely fearless for someone ranked 58 in the world.
Having taken down Novak Djokovic, Hyeon isn’t going to worry about the aura of invincibility that surrounds Federer in Melbourne these days.
Chung dispatched the American, Tennys Sandgren, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 in their quarter-final. Hyeon wasn’t quite as dynamic as he had been against Novak, but perhaps there was bound to be a slight slump in level against a fellow adventurer who had travelled far further through the tournament than anyone had expected.
You wouldn’t expect Chung to be anything other than totally pumped and ready with his best game face when it comes to taking on Federer in their semi.
So Roger will have to start much better if he is going to avoid a major upset. And one thing we know about Fed is that he won’t underestimate his opponent.
Federer said: ‘I’ve never played Chung of Kyle Edmund. It’s great to see new names on the scene. We need it. The way both of them have played is highly impressive. Beating Grigor Dimitrov, beating Novak Djokovic on this court is extremely difficult. Chung reminds me of Novak, sliding across the back of the court and getting balls back.’
Federer-Chung should be a terrific match, in keeping with yet another wonderful Aussie Open.
For the record, Federer broke in the eighth game of the second set to go 5-3 ahead, It was something you could almost have predicted, as perhaps did a nagging voice inside the head of Berdych, judging by the jitters he got at crucial times in the game.
But there appeared to be physical problems too. At the end of the second set, Tomas left the court on a medical time-out. He probably already knew that another set would be futile. He gave it a go anyway.
Once Berdych was broken in the loose third game of what proved to be the final set, it should have been a simple case of Federer closing out in style. Instead he allowed himself to be broken back.
The master soon put things right though – breaking yet again with a backhand winner, one of many on the night. This time there was no way back for the man who was still probably beating himself up for throwing the first set away.
Meanwhile the women’s semi-final between Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber will probably produce the winner of the tournament. Both look in superb form, although Halep lost the first three games of her quarter-final against Karolina Pliskova.
Nine consecutive games later, the 26-year-old Romanian had more than put her early carelessness right. By then she was so dominant that no one was surprised by the eventual 6-3, 6-2 outcome.
Kerber, meanwhile, is showing no weaknesses at all. She took just 51 minutes to end the hopes of Madison Keys, 6-1, 6-2. And on balance, you would probably tip Kerber against Halep, partly because she has already been champion here. If Simona beats Angelique, she will deserve her tilt at a first Grand Slam title.
However, Caroline Wozniacki and Elise Mertens, the other semi-finalists, will have their own perspective on that. And in a Grand Slam always so full of surprises, no one can be ruled out, especially at this stage.