January 28, 2020
A defiant Roger Federer saved no fewer than seven match points while nursing a groin injury.
The Swiss genius needed only one match point when it came to the crunch and admitted: ‘I believe in miracles.’
Of all his achievements in the game, those magnificent seven demonstrations of sporting bravery must be among Roger’s greatest.
Character, after all, means at least as much as trophies.
Federer’s 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6, (10-8), 6-3 victory over Tennys Sandgren looked like mission impossible so many times.
And his incredible resilience may be remembered for longer than the miraculous result itself.
Federer explained: ‘You’ve gotta get lucky sometimes. Those seven match points were not under control. I got incredibly lucky today.
‘As the match went on I started to play better and all the pressure went away. I’m standing here and obviously I’m very happy.
‘I had started to feel my leg and groin tighten up. I don’t like to call the trainer. A sign of weakness or whatever.
‘I said “I believe in miracles. It might rain. Or let him finish me off in style.” He didn’t do that.
‘You do feel better. Then you think you should actually be skiing in Switzerland by now but you’re still here.
‘But whoever I play in the semi-final, I will have to feel better than today or I really will be skiing in Switzerland.’
The 28-year-old American from Tennessee had worked so hard for his moment in the sun. So he wasn’t about to ease off when he saw the all-time-great in distress.
That’s what makes the sequence of events so staggering. Sandgren squandered three match points at 5-4 in the fourth set and four more in the subsequent breaker.
Federer’s inspirational refusal to give in had spectators in raptures and you wondered whether they might just carry the great man over the line.
So it proved. And he needed all the help he could get. Federer had struggled with any sharp movement to his right for much of the match.
In a gladiatorial sport like tennis, no mercy can be shown to the injured by the healthy.
Even so, the contest made for painful viewing at times as a worried hush descended upon the Rod Laver Arena.
Sport, as with life in general, can change in an instant.
We didn’t think Federer would look back after Sandgren served a double fault then struck a backhand too long and conceded the first break midway through the opening set.
Indeed those mistakes initially proved important as Federer comfortably closed out the first set and seemed to be strolling through.
But a volley and a forehand drifted wide before Roger smashed too long and handed Sandgren the second-set initiative.
A fifteenth unforced error from Federer meant that moments later he was 0-3 down.
Astonishingly, Roger was broken once more as Sandgren levelled the match.
For the second time this tournament, Federer’s level had dropped so low that he was dealing with a crisis of confidence.
But this time there was the other unseen enemy – a slight injury.
Federer fell 0-2 behind in the third as a rampant Sandgren seized his fourth game in a row. But a 28-shot rally gave the Swiss master three break-back points.
As he failed to convert, Roger was warned for an audible obscenity, which he disputed both with the line-judge and umpire.
This wasn’t the Federer we all love. Something was wrong. Moments later he left the court for a medical timeout.
Was the five-set classic against John Millman catching up with his 38-year-old body?
The most recent rallies had also been gruelling. Sandgren had to take credit for that.
Federer had never retired from a professional match in his entire career. He battled on.
The third set ended like the one before. Sandgren broke the superstar a second time. This time it took six setpoints for the underdog to get the job done.
A man who was barely in the top hundred prior to this tournament stuttered when he saw the finishing line, though.
And Federer’s remarkable character shone through.
Earlier Ashleigh Barty had become the first Australian woman to reach the semi-final in Melbourne for 36 years.
Now the aggressive young American, Sofia Kenin stands between Barty and the Aussie Open showpiece.
Ash took one hour and 44 minutes to beat Petra Kvitova and saved a set point on her way to a 7-6 (8-6), 6-2 victory.
Barty said: ‘I knew I had to bring my absolute best against Petra. She is the perfect competitor and I love to test myself against her.
‘Kenin is having an incredible run so it’s about getting my running shoes on.
‘Whatever happens, I’ll have nothing but a massive smile on my face when I come out on this beautiful court.’
It was almost as if Barty had been listening to advice and recognised that she had forgotten how to enjoy herself so far this tournament.
So this was a much more free-flowing Barty who visibly relaxed into her task.
She blew Kvitova away at the start of the second set to take a 4-0 lead.
Ash served much bigger than the previous round and seemed to relish the challenge.
The world number one’s performance was far from faultless and Barty might have to raise her level once more to defeat her next, intensely determined opponent.
But this was much more like it.
Kenin had beaten Ons Jabeur 6-4, 6-4 to progress, having already seen off Coco Gauff.
She said: ‘I’m super-excited. It was a tough match.’
Barty will have huge crowd support for the semi-final. If she embraces that and really does enjoy the big occasion then she can reach the final.
But if Ash tightens under the weight of expectation, then it will be Kenin who wins through against the odds.
The plucky American doesn’t mind having the crowd against her. She thrived in that kind of atmosphere against teenager Gauff.