Credit: Jason Reed/Reuters
MELBOURNE, Australia — The match that broke a 22-22 tie started out as a mismatch.
Roger Federer has inflicted plenty of pain in a hurry on lesser tennis champions in Rod Laver Arena, ripping winner after winner in full flow.
But this time, Federer was the one fighting the current and looking in dire need of one of those surf-defying Australian lifeguards.
“It can happen,” Federer said.
Particularly against Novak Djokovic, who has perhaps never played better in a big match than in the opening phase of this Australian Open semifinal Thursday.
There were aces, cleanly struck backhands, wickedly angled forehands, right-guess returns and full-swinging passing shots on the line off the full stretch. Above all, there was supreme precision and assurance from a master craftsman at the summit of his art, even if art is a word more often associated with Federer.
“You had the impression Djoko was seeing the tennis ball like it was the size of a soccer ball,” said Severin Lüthi, Federer’s coach. “He could hit them with all his force and not miss.”
To be blunt, this could have been a humiliating night for Federer, a 34-year-old playing his successor as the world’s dominant player. But after losing the first two sets in 54 minutes, Federer — urging himself on and getting plenty of positive reinforcement from the Melbourne crowd — managed to save face and even win a set before the current shifted again for good.
Djokovic’s 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory, which started outdoors and finished under a closed roof, put him in his sixth Australian Open final, where he will face the winner of Friday’s semifinal between Andy Murray and Milos Raonic.
Best to wish either of them luck, because Djokovic, despite struggling in the fourth round against Gilles Simon, clearly still possesses the same extra gear in the new year that he called on so often in 2015.
“Well, I’ve had matches where I played similar tennis,” Djokovic said. “But against Roger, these first two sets have been probably the best two sets I’ve played against him over all, I think, throughout my career.”
That is quite a statement considering that this was the 45th match in a rivalry that began nearly a decade ago and has featured a string of high-profile finals.
But Djokovic, the clear No. 1, now holds a 23-22 lead over Federer and, for the first time, a career lead over all of his principal rivals: Federer, Murray, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka.
Head-to-head comparisons have their limits. Nadal’s big edge over Federer is a result, in part, of so many of their duels taking place on clay. Federer has played Djokovic more often since his prime years ended in 2010.
But Djokovic once trailed Federer and Nadal by big margins, and he has used their excellence for motivation and taken a sledgehammer to the duopoly.
“Both Roger and Rafa have contributed a lot to my career and to my success,” he said. “Because of these two rivalries I’ve had and playing those two guys a hundred times combined, it’s obviously made me a better player. I’ve worked very hard to get myself in a position to challenge them. It wasn’t easy, but right now I’m feeling I’m at the peak of my career.”
That feeling surely helps in a pinch, and he needed plenty of confidence to bounce back quickly from his 100 unforced errors and five out-of-sorts sets against Simon. The concern in his camp was that Djokovic had overdone it, pushed too hard for too long in 2015 and in the preparation phase for 2016.
So he took a rare day off from tennis Monday in an attempt to recharge his batteries and recover his edge, and only four days after one of his ugliest matches, he played one of his prettiest.
“Your best changes day to day,” Djokovic said. “It’s not always possible to play this way. You strive to be the best you can be. When you’re playing one of your top rivals, somebody of Roger’s résumé, of course it requires a lot of focus, determination and a different preparation for that matchup than most of the other matches. So that’s why I came out with I think a great deal of self-belief and confidence and intensity.”
Federer, seeded third this year, was still the crowd favorite Thursday, although this crowd had little of the hard edge that the United States Open crowd possessed in last year’s raucous final, a much closer match that Federer also lost in four sets.
The crowd in New York was aggressively anti-Djokovic. The Melbourne Park crowd — despite some cheering for Djokovic’s missed serves — was more passionately pro-Federer. But there was more sympathy than belief in the early roars of encouragement he received in Laver Arena, with Rod Laver himself in the front row.
There was also an extraordinary ovation as he came out to serve after losing the first two sets. He responded with a remarkable third.
After a short delay to close the roof because of impending rain, Djokovic looked vulnerable early in the fourth set, but Federer failed to capitalize in Djokovic’s early service games, uttering rare groans of frustration as he missed second-serve returns into the net.
The final turning point came in the eighth game of the set. Federer served at 3-4, 15-30, and played — as hyperbolic as it might sound — one of the points of his career. After Djokovic ran down a drop shot and lofted a near-perfect lob, Federer chased it down, sliding before throwing up a lob of his own.
Djokovic hit an overhead back, but Federer somehow punched it back. Djokovic hit a volley into the open court, but Federer already was moving in that direction and hit a full-stretch backhand winner down the line that landed on the outside edge of the sideline.
He stood still and clenched his fist in the direction of his box as his wife, Mirka, stood and applauded. Djokovic looked across the net at him wide-eyed.
Asked later to rank that point among the best he has played, Federer answered, “Top 100,” with a grin.
“Then I got an unlucky let cord,” he said. “That calmed me down very quickly again.”
The bad bounce came on the next point. With Federer back at net, Djokovic hit a forehand passing shot that Federer closed on but which clipped the net and shot over his outstretched racket for a winner.
This time Mirka covered her eyes with both hands. On the next point — a break point — Federer chose to serve and volley on a second serve and paid the price as Djokovic nailed a return that Federer lunged for and could not handle.
It was Djokovic’s fifth break of serve in the match against a man who had lost his serve only five times in his first five matches in Melbourne.
Four points later, after Djokovic held serve at love, this rather anticlimactic semifinal was over, and not long after that, Lüthi was in one of the corridors in Laver Arena, making a tiny space with his right thumb and right index finger to show the difference between that critical Djokovic passing shot being an error or a net-cord winner.
“I had a good feeling in the fourth,” Lüthi said. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure Roger would win, but you could sense the possibility.”
But that tiny space between Lüthi’s fingers did not reflect the increasingly big gap between these two great players. Djokovic has won their last four Grand Slam matches, and Federer has not won a major singles title since Wimbledon in 2012. Djokovic has won five since then.
On Sunday, after two days’ rest, he will have a fine chance to win another.