January 24, 2017
Roger Federer’s dream comeback continues, after he took just 92 minutes to defeat Mischa Zverev 6-1, 7-5, 6-2. That leaves the 35-year-old plenty of fuel left in the tank to face his younger compatriot, Stan Wawrinka.
Federer has won five of their last six meetings, and yet Wawrinka is fancied by many to win the Australian Open. Stan did it in 2014; he went on to win the French in 2015 and the US Open at the end of last year. So Wawrinka is hardly lacking in confidence.
And yet Roger’s form has been so stunning during this, his first tournament in six months, that it would be foolish to write him off now – especially with virtually the entire crowd behind him.
He is riding an unexpected wave of success, much earlier in 2017 than he had anticipated. Federer explained: ‘My expectation was not to play Stan Wawrinka in the semis. I thought maybe I could get to the fourth round or quarters.’
But Roger knows exactly how he has to play, if he is to overcome his dangerous rival. ‘For me to play against Stan I have to play aggressive. The more time I give him, the better he is. I’m happy he has got this far but he doesn’t need to go a step further…Stan knows I’m joking…somewhat.’
Whether Wawrinka finds that funny, or uses it as extra motivation, he won’t be looking to do Federer any favours in the twilight of the legend’s career. He loves Australia too and said. ‘Playing in a semi here is always special – I won my first Grand Slam here in front of amazing fans. I hope a few will cheer for me against Roger.’
Unlikely. But that imbalance could work against Federer too. Amazement is starting to turn into expectation, after three incredible performances in succession. It took Roger just nineteen minutes to win his first set against Zverev. And he was only truly troubled once in the match, when broken early in the second set. Even then he broke straight back.
Now that he has reached the semi-finals and glory is so close, will the pressure be on Federer for the first time? And even if it is, so what?
Of course, the great man is used to pressure. This is his 41st Grand Slam semi-final and his 13th at the Australian Open. No one can say this isn’t familiar territory.
And yet Roger has wanted one more Slam to add to his collection of seventeen so badly in recent years that he has sometimes tightened surprisingly and lost the psychological battle with himself. We have seen it in a Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic and last year’s Wimbledon semi-final against Milos Ranic.
That’s why, for all Wawrinka’s explosive brilliance, for all the beauty of Stan’s exquisite backhand, Federer’s biggest challenge will be to stay cool and keep the fun vibe going.
He needs to remind himself that he has nothing to lose, that he has already surpassed everyone’s – including his own – expectations. He must prevent an unhelpful thought from entering his head; the one that says: ‘This could be your last chance to win a massive semi-final…and then a Slam…ever.’
Instead he needs to tell himself: ‘This won’t be your last chance in 2017. Not the way you’re playing now. But it would be one hell of a way to start the year!’
You can rely on Federer to get his tactics right. If he plays the mind games just as well, he has at least an even chance of going all the way to the final.
And 2017 could be a vintage year not just for Federer, but another living legend of our sport – Venus Williams. Venus is also through to a semi-final against a compatriot – in her case the irrepressible Coco Vandeweghe, who thrashed no less a name than Garbine Muguruza, 6-4, 6-0.
That should be a great match too – but Venus will have to raise her level even higher than she did during her brilliant 6-4, 7-6(3) victory over Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
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