The great Roger Federer has won four Australian Open titles in his career, more than any other active player. The Swiss has never lost before the semi-finals since he first won the trophy in 2004, a peerless feat of consistency that is a tribute to his ability to deliver the goods when it counts.
Choosing the quintessential Federer display is not an easy task, as he has treated fans to some superlative spectacles down under. His highly anticipated last four clash with Andy Roddick in 2007 became an exhibition for Federer’s remarkable gifts: he was simply outstanding in every department, and allowed the American only six games in the entire contest. Juan Martin Del Potro was another notable victim in the 2009 quarter-final. Hitting winners seemingly at will, Federer barely broke sweat during the 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 shellacking, the Argentine’s worst-ever defeat in a Grand Slam.
But even the maestro can’t play a perfect tune every time, and Federer has endured some tortuous tussles over the years in Melbourne. With the first Grand Slam of 2013 very much on the horizon, we take a look at three of Federer’s most hard-fought Australian Open matches.
1. Fourth round, 2009: Federer def. Berdych 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2
Federer had a 7-1 winning record over Tomas Berdych when the pair took to the court for their last 16 clash in 2009. Although Berdych was becoming known as a dangerous player on tour, and had upset the Swiss in the Athens Olympics in 2004, he had only won a single set against Federer since then, and wasn’t expected to pose a serious threat in Melbourne. But as the match got underway, it soon became clear that Federer was far from his best. Committing a slew of unforced errors and failing to capitalise on break point opportunities, he struggled to make inroads against an inspired Berdych, who was using his formidable serve and huge groundstrokes to great effect. The Czech was playing the match of his life, and fully deserved to take the opening two sets. When he snuffed out Federer’s mini-revival at the start of the third by breaking back for 3-all, it seemed that he was only a few games away from an astonishing upset. But the man from Basel managed to move through the gears just in time, coinciding with some increasingly tentative play from Berdych. Federer broke again for a 4-3 lead, raised his game to close out the third set and held firm in the fourth. When he finally converted match point after almost three and a half hours, Federer unleashed a rarely-heard roar of satisfaction. He knew how close he had come to losing, and this match proved beyond doubt that he has deep reserves of courage and determination to complement the elegance and creativity of his game.
2. Third round, 2008: Federer def. Tipsarevic 6-7, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1, 10-8
2007 had been yet another legendary season for Federer. He won three of the year’s Grand Slam tournaments, and losses were few and far between, making him the most dominant number one in decades. In contrast, his opponent in the third round of the 2008 Australian Open had yet to win an ATP title. Janko Tipsarevic was clearly in the ascendancy at 49 in the world rankings, but the 23-year-old was still little-known, and not expected to put up much resistance against Federer. To the surprise of almost everyone, however, he went toe-to-toe with the Swiss in a four-hour battle, pushing Federer into the longest deciding set he had yet played. Tipsarevic’s game plan was uncomplicated but effective: go on the attack wherever possible, serve aggressively and take time away from the maestro. Although the defending champion was far from the peak of his powers – he would later confess to suffering the after-effects of glandular fever – Tipsarevic showed remarkable poise and focus to come back from 5-3 down in the first set and take the third after saving two set points. Order seemed to be restored when Federer blitzed through the fourth set, but the decider would prove to be a Herculean battle. Tipsarevic, serving first, continued to dominate on his serve, and had a comfortable 40-0 lead at 8-all. But, from nowhere, Federer produced a series of brilliant shots to erase the advantage and secure a vital break. His experience and coolness under pressure were evident in the final game of the match, an assured and convincing service hold that awarded him his toughest ever Australian Open win.
3. Semi-final, 2005: Safin def. Federer 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7
This may be one that Federer fanatics would rather forget, but there is no denying that his 2005 semi-final against Marat Safin was a match for the ages. The Russian was one of the most puzzling characters ever to play on the ATP tour, a head-scratching hybrid of racket-smashing head-case and extraordinary talent. His place in the top echelons of the game was confirmed by his win over Pete Sampras in the US Open 2000, but since then Safin had disappointed more than he had impressed, suffering many early-round flame-outs and failing to deliver on his considerable promise. But at the 2005 Australian Open, the mercurial giant had rediscovered his slam-winning form, and entered the last four clash with Federer believing he could score an upset. Devastatingly accurate serving and brutal groundstrokes prevented the Swiss from ripping his trademark improbable winners, and the rallies that ensured were some of the most intense ever witnessed. Nevertheless, Federer wrestled his way to a two sets to one lead, and was 5-2 up in the fourth set tie-break. On match point, at 6-5, he made an uncharacteristically reckless decision to hit a “tweener” when chasing down a Safin lob, even though he had time to run around the ball and hit a much more reliable forehand. Safin duly saved the match point, and pushed the contest into an incredibly tense fifth set. The Russian continued to produce some stunning tennis, but Federer’s performance was a revelation. In spite of suffering from elbow and back pain, he clawed his way back from 2-5 down and stared down six match points before Safin finally nailed a forehand to take the decider 9-7. It was a character-defining display of grit and resilience from Federer that dismissed any lingering doubts about his heart for tough battles. With this match, Federer proved that he was a fighter as well as a genius.
Never one to look back and be satisfied with past glories, Roger Federer will return to Melbourne next month eager to enhance his legacy yet further. He may be 31 years old, but time has diminished neither his desire nor his powers. Victory in 2013 would not only set a new Open Era record of 5 Australian Open titles, but also earn him his 18th Grand Slam. If he can summon his best tennis, very few players will be able to stop him.