After 22 years on Tour, Roger Federer delivered the greatest Houdini act of his career to reach the Australian Open semi-finals on Tuesday. The third seed erased seven match points to complete a stunning 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6(8), 6-3 win over Tennys Sandgren in an instant classic.
”You’ve got to get lucky sometimes,” Federer said with a smile in his on-court interview. “I was just hoping that maybe he wasn’t going to smash a winner, if he misses one or two [match points], who knows what’s going to happen? I think I got incredibly lucky today.
”As the match went on, I started to feel better and just tried to play. I believe in miracles. There could be rain… Just let him finish me off in style, and he didn’t do that. I’m still standing here and obviously just very happy.”
Federer remains unbeaten (15-0) in quarter-finals at this event. The Swiss has also won his past six five-set matches in Melbourne, completing another great escape last week by rallying from 4/8 in the fifth-set tie-break of his third-round clash with John Millman.
Next up for him is second-seeded Serbian Novak Djokovic, who beat No. 32 seed Milos Raonic of Canada in straight sets. Federer trails Djokovic 23-26 in their rivalry and has lost their past three matches in Melbourne, all of which took place in the semi-finals (2008, 2011, 2016).
”It’s nice to see Milos back and playing well. It’s nice for him to remind everybody that he does belong up in the [FedEx ATP] Rankings. I’m really happy for him,” Federer said. “Novak, he’s a champion, especially here in Australia. We’ve had some epic matches in the past... I need to feel better than I do today.
”The draws are not getting easier. But I’ve got the next [two] days with nothing to do… You do feel better and you just never know. With these lucky escapes, you might play without expectations because you know you should be skiing in Switzerland… Might as well make the most of it!"
Federer applied pressure from the first ball in the opening set. Sandgren erased a pair of break points in his first service game, then fought back from 0/40 two games later. But Federer kept knocking on the door and it opened at 3-2, with the six-time champion securing a break after Sandgren sent a backhand long. He maintained his slight advantage and cracked a first serve on set point to take the early lead.
The Swiss has been prone to streaks of unforced errors this fortnight and endured another spell of them early in the second set. With Sandgren using his outstanding speed to make Federer play one more ball, the 28-year-old tracked down a deep forehand on break point at 1-0 and floated up a high lob, drawing a smash error from Federer to grab his first break of the day.
Federer struggled to find the range on his shots, hitting 15 unforced errors throughout the second set. Serving at 2-5, the third seed's backhand hit the top of the tape on set point and allowed Sandgren to level the match.
The unseeded American scored another break against the Swiss to lead 2-0 in the third set, causing the crowd inside Rod Laver Arena to gasp in unison. With the prospect of a maiden Grand Slam semi-final becoming more realistic, Sandgren blocked out any signs of nerves and remained calm.
Facing triple break point at 2-0, he unleashed a series of booming serves and eventually held. Sandgren continued to increase his first-serve percentage, beefing it up from 46 per cent in the first set to 70 per cent in the third set.
Federer left the court for a medical timeout at 0-3, but it didn't change Sandgren's dominance on serve. Most of his aces came in the Ad court, but he also consistently pushed the Swiss out wide to his forehand in the Deuce court, setting up one-two punches to keep points short.
Although Federer's movement appeared to be hampered, he fought for every point. He bravely erased five set points on his serve at 2-5, but Sandgren converted his sixth chance after a Federer backhand found the net, pumping his fist at his team as he moved closer to a career-defining win.
Both players traded comfortable service holds in the fourth set until Sandgren reached match point with Federer serving at 4-5. But the prospect of defeating the six-time champion suddenly showed in the American’s groundstrokes, with three match-point opportunities vanishing due to nervy errors. Federer eventually held with a forehand winner as the crowd roared in approval.
The set eventually moved to a tie-break and it was Federer who blinked first, hitting a loose forehand to give the American a 4/3 mini-break advantage. Another three match points came Sandgren's way at 6/3, but the Swiss shockingly erased all of them and hit a swinging forehand volley winner at 6/5 to level the score.
A seventh match point came and went at 7/6 after Sandgren hit a slice backhand into the net. Federer, at long last, earned a set point of his own at 8/7, but the American quickly removed it with an ace. Federer secured a 9/8 mini-break lead after the American pulled a forehand wide, then brought the match to a decider after Sandgren sent a smash from the baseline well long.
Sandgren stayed with Federer in the early stages of the final set, but the effects of squandering seven match points had understandably taken a toll mentally. Federer found new life in his movement and pace on his forehand, cracking a down-the-line forehand at 3-2 to earn a critical break. He made good on his first match point, launching a big first serve to wrap up play after three hours and 31 minutes.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, Sandgren has plenty to build on. He scored a pair of big wins this fortnight over eighth seed Matteo Berrettini and No. 12 seed Fabio Fognini en route to reaching his second quarter-final at this event. The World No. 100 is projected to jump back inside the Top 60 on Monday and is in a prime position to continue climbing.