MELBOURNE: It seemed unthinkable just a few days ago, but Roger Federer’s chances of winning an age-defying 18th Grand Slam title are looking better all the time after an astonishing turn of events at the Australian Open.
As top-ranked Andy Murray followed defending champion Novak Djokovic to the exit, 35-year-old Federer gritted his teeth to reach the quarter-finals — and was promptly installed as the surprise bookies’ favourite.
There was no doubt what it meant to Federer, who leapt around the court in celebration as he completed a hard-fought, 6-7 (4/7), 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 win over Japan’s Kei Nishikori late on Sunday.
“This is a huge moment for me in my career,” said the grinning Swiss, who could write a new chapter following his return from six months out with a knee injury.
Federer hasn’t won a Grand Slam title in five years, and he could also become the oldest player since 37-year-old Ken Rosewall in 1972 to win one of the sport’s major trophies.
Playing with his old panache, he remains a huge favourite of the Australian crowds who have seen him victorious on four occasions at Melbourne Park.
However, it is still early to talk of a record-extending 18th major title for Federer, with much tennis to be played over the next week starting with his quarter-final against Mischa Zverev.
Victory on Tuesday would put him into a semi-final against his fellow Swiss, the redoubtable Stan Wawrinka, or France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
On the other side of the draw lurk third seed Milos Raonic and Grigor ‘Baby Fed’ Dimitrov — and Federer’s old nemesis, Rafael Nadal.
– Rocket’s man –
Australian legend Rod ‘Rocket’ Laver, whose name adorns the Melbourne centre court, was one observer hoping for a ninth Grand Slam final between the long-time rivals.
“Yeah, it would be nice to see (Federer and Nadal) in the final,” he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“They’ve been battling each other for probably the last 11 years and now they’re here with a good chance to go through.
“But again, any of these younger players coming through can be troublesome.”
Laver, who called Federer his “favourite” modern-day player, added: “It is amazing to think that Roger Federer is playing as well as he is at this moment.
“He had a knee operation which took him back, he’s been out of the game for six months.
“He’s been working awfully hard and I think that’s probably been the best thing; he probably never had this much time to prepare for specific people.
“I have not seen him play a backhand this good, as consistently as it has been the last three or four days.”
After failing to catch fire against Jurgen Melzer and Noah Rubin, Federer has evoked memories of his glory days in his last two matches, especially his 90-minute beating of Tomas Berdych.
Meanwhile the newly knighted Murray, who had climbed to the top of the pecking order after a brilliant 2016, was left to ponder his defeat to serve-volleyer Zverev on the long flight home.
“Early knight”, and “Night Knight, Andy”, headlined the Aussie media, as the five-time losing finalist picked over his earliest Melbourne departure in eight years.
“I was full of confidence coming into the beginning of this year. I prepared as best as I could,” Murray said.
“But maybe have to have a look back and assess some things and see maybe if there’s some stuff I could have done differently, or did my opponent just play a great match?”
Women’s defending champion Angelique Kerber was upset by Coco Vandeweghe late on Sunday, making it the first Grand Slam since the 2004 French Open that both top seeds have departed before the quarter-finals.