No longer No 1, but Federer still top dog
Swiss preserves glorious run in Australia and will be on centre stage against the local hero Tomic
When Roger Federer was scheduled earlier this week to play his second-round match against Andreas Beck in the Hisense Arena, the second show court here at Melbourne Park, it was reported that tournament organisers jokingly sent him a map with directions on how to find the venue. The 30-year-old Swiss had played his previous 52 matches at the Australian Open, dating back to 2004, in Rod Laver Arena, the tournament's main stadium.
Federer took the downturn in his billing with good grace – and in the end did not have to find his way to the court, thanks to Beck's withdrawal through injury – but the episode was a reflection of the former world No 1's slide down the pecking order. The greatest player in history has not won a Grand Slam title since beating Andy Murray in the final here two years ago. The seven subsequent tournaments have all been won by Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.
Yesterday Federer was back in Rod Laver Arena and gave notice that he has every intention of staying there. A 7-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory over Ivo Karlovic took him into the second week of a Grand Slam tournament for the 31st time in a row. The last time he failed to progress beyond the third round was at the French Open eight years ago.
There will be no question of Federer's fourth-round match tomorrow – the 999th singles contest of his senior career – being relegated to a lesser court. The most eagerly awaited confrontation of the tournament so far will see the world No 3 take on the emerging Australian teenager, Bernard Tomic, who last night beat Alexandr Dolgopolov, the world No 13, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3.
Tomic could provide a major test for Federer. The world No 38, who reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last summer, has attracted many admirers with his stylish and unpredictable play, including Andy Murray. "Tomic has just got a funky game, so different to everyone nowadays," Murray said. "It's fun to watch."
At 19, Tomic is the youngest player in the world's top 100, while Federer is aiming to become the first thirtysomething to lift a men's Grand Slam singles title since Andre Agassi won here nine years ago, three months before his 33rd birthday. In his 49th consecutive Grand Slam tournament, which puts him just seven short of the record held by Wayne Ferreira, Federer is also aiming to become only the second man, after Roy Emerson, to win the Australian Open five times or more.
When Federer lost to Djokovic in the semi-finals of the US Open four months ago, ending a season without a Grand Slam trophy for the first time since 2002, there was a growing feeling within the game that he might never add to his record tally of 16 major titles. However, since that defeat, during which Djokovic saved two match points, Federer has won 22 matches in succession.
Yesterday's victory provided reminders that few play the big points better. Taking your chances is essential against 6ft 10in Karlovic. The 32-year-old Croat holds the record for the fastest recorded serve (156mph), while no man in the last 30 years has won a greater proportion of service games (91 per cent).
When Karlovic served to win the tie-break at 6-5, a mishit volley that crept over the net had Federer scrambling to reach the ball. Getting to it just in time, Federer stunned his opponent by putting up a clever lob – not a tactic the man mountain usually has to face – he was unable to reach. A stunning backhand return winner gave Federer set point, which he took with a service winner.
Federer took the second set with two beautifully played points when Karlovic served at 5-6 and deuce. A winning backhand cross-court pass gave him set point, upon which he pressured Karlovic into hitting a forehand volley long. The only break of the third set came in the fourth game, which Federer won with a backhand return winner down the line. Break, set and match.
Having pulled out halfway through his warm-up tournament in Doha a fortnight ago with a recurrence of a back problem, Federer is happy to emerge unscathed from the first week here. "Overall, I feel good," he said. "It's been a good match for me and a good last week or so. No back issues at all today. I didn't even think about it, to be honest. So it was a good day at the office."
If Federer finds a way past Tomic he is likely then to meet Juan Martin del Potro, who beat him in the 2009 US Open final. The challenges will not get any easier: Federer is seeded to meet Nadal in the semi-finals, having been paired with the Spaniard in the same half of the draw for the first time in a Grand Slam tournament since 2005.
Nadal has made similarly impressive progress in the first week after coming into the tournament with a physical problem. "The knee is fine – that's the important thing," he reported yesterday after his 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 defeat of Lukas Lacko.
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