MELBOURNE, Australia — When he arrived here, Roger Federer probably should have visited the casino at Crown Melbourne, perched on the south bank of the Yarra River. Because, at the age of 35, he’s playing with house money. The pre-tournament odds against seven consecutive Federer victories were 21-1.
After he dispatched Tomas Berdych with a perfect combination of timing and tempo, and then another top-10 player, Kei Nishikori, a round later, Federer suddenly found himself the 3.5-1 favorite.
It has been 4½ years since Federer won a Grand Slam singles title, but it just might happen in five days’ time. On Tuesday night, Federer throttled unseeded Mischa Zverev 6-1, 7-5, 6-2.
The first set was over in only 19 minutes, and the 92-minute match followed oh so quickly.
Hard to believe it was Zverev who stunned No. 1 seed Andy Murray in the fourth round, sparing Federer from meeting him.
For the 13th time in 14 years, Federer is safely into the Australian Open semifinals. And so, it will be the Swiss No. 1, Stan Wawrinka, versus Federer, the (for now) Swiss No. 2.
His honest expectations coming in?
“Well not play Stan in the semis, I’ll tell you that,” Federer said in his on-court interview. “I thought maybe win a few rounds. I told the Swiss press maybe I could make the quarters if the draw was OK.
“I’m happy I played as well as I played. Never thought I’d play as well as did here. I am still standing.”
Paul Annacone has witnessed this kind of renaissance before. He coached Federer from 2010 to 2012 and helped guide him to two year-end championships, a return to the No. 1 ranking and that last major title, at Wimbledon in 2012.
“The hardest thing for great players is how often can they play great at this level,” said Annacone, now a Tennis Channel analyst. “Great doesn’t just disappear, but how do you sustain it?”
Annacone was Pete Sampras’ coach when the 14-time Grand Slam champion struggled to recapture the enthusiasm of his young career. Annacone was there when Sampras went 4-3 in the first three Slams of 2002 — and then won the US Open to close out his career.
Federer could have come back at the end of last year but elected instead to give his surgically repaired knee some extra time to recover. Turns out, the extended layoff may have had a healing effect on his head, too.
“I think so,” Annacone said. “One of the hardest things at that age and stage is to stay motivated.
“I think that refreshed him a bit, gave him a little time to take a breather. I think he’s been rejuvenated by that.”
Federer wasn’t sure how his body would hold up to the rigors of a Grand Slam tournament, describing his doubts as a “cloud.” His first two matches, both against qualifiers, reflected that tentative mindset. He framed a few forehands early in his first match against Jurgen Melzer and let 20-year-old American Noah Rubin dictate a number of points from the baseline.
But against Berdych, feeling a welcome sense of urgency, Federer stopped thinking too much and started hitting the ball. His backhand down the line, always an insight into Federer’s psyche, looked like something from the glory years.
Zverev, like so many players, idolized Federer growing up in Germany. The last time they played, in Halle, Germany, Federer won 6-0, 6-0. The win over Murray on Sunday was a marvelous moment for Zverev, who had beaten the Scot in the European Cup under-16s, but suffered a horrific series of injuries in his mid-20s, including a herniated disc, fractured ribs and a badly broken wrist.
Federer, the No. 17 seed, improved to 13-0 in Australian Open quarterfinals. He hit 65 winners, against only 13 unforced errors.
Annacone, as you might imagine, hears frequent questions about his former player.
“A lot of people have asked the last two years, ‘Can he win another major?'” he said. “Well, he was in two major finals in 2015. And then, even at beginning of ’16 he was playing well.
“There are still a lot of terrific players left, and pressure situations, but I don’t see why he can’t win more.”