Roger Federer, into the Australian Open quarter-finals for the 13th time in the last 14 years, takes on first-time grand slam quarter-finalist Mischa Zverev today at Melbourne Park.
Quite simply an incredible storyline has played out with Federer and Zverev competing for a place in the Australian Open semi-finals. On one side of the net you have one of the greatest tennis players in the history of tennis, a 17-time grand slam champion who is playing his first competitive tournament since Wimbledon last year. And on the other side you have a man who this time two years ago was ranked outside the top 1,000 due to multiple injury problems, playing his first ever major quarter-final after recording his maiden win over a World No. 1 in the previous round. It isn’t the quarter-final we expected, but it’s the quarter-final that is arguably the most anticipated heading into the business end of the tournament.
Even I think Federer has exceeded his own expectations with how well he’s played in Melbourne over the last week, and with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray out, the Swiss maestro has all of a sudden transformed into a genuine title contender. The 35-year-old was understandably a little rusty in his opening two wins over Jurgen Melzer and Noah Rubin, but he produced a vintage performance to derail Tomas Berdych in the third round and a fighting display to overcome fifth seed Kei Nishikori in a five-set Round of 16 battle.
Federer’s win over Nishikori was the 200th top 10 win of his career, becoming the first active player to achieve that milestone. Federer, who fired 83 winners and 24 aces during the three hour and 23 minute victory, recovered from a slow start in which he went 5-1 down in the opening set to ultimately force a tiebreak, and although Nishikori still edged it, the Swiss was well and truly in the match. Federer rode that momentum through sets two and three, and although Nishikori came back in the fourth, it was the four-time Australian Open champion that struck early in the decider and held serve for the remainder of the clash to emerge a 6-7(4) 6-4 6-1 4-6 6-3 winner.
"I didn't expect him to play this well from the start and that put me on the back foot for the remainder of the match to some extent," added Federer.
"But I was able to wrestle it back in my favour. I got myself into the match and started to play the good sets that I knew I could. The question was could I hang with Kei until the very end. I was able to do that, so I'm super happy.
"You have a game plan and he's got a game plan. Sometimes it doesn't match up the right way for you. He was quick out of the blocks. I was accepting it and moving on with it, trying to at least find some sort of a rhythm going into the second set... I was still upbeat about my chances after that first set. I think it gave me something coming back into that set actually."
A dream 18th major title is now well within Federer’s sights in Melbourne, but first he will have to overcome a man who is enjoying his own fairytale run at the Australian Open.
Zverev caused arguably the shock of the Australian Open (including Novak Djokovic’s loss to Denis Istomin) when he stunned World No. 1 and five-time finalist Andy Murray in a stunning four-set victory on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday.
Mischa Zverev (Photo by PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images)
It was seemingly set to be a comfortable straight sets win for Murray, with Zverev’s serve-and-volley game playing right into the supreme returning and passing strengths of the Scot. However Zverev mixed his play up tremendously from the baseline, moving Murray around with a combination of low sliced backhands and his unorthodox forehand. Zverev consistently charged the net in an inspirational performance, placing Murray and immense pressure and forcing him to miss regulation passes as a result.
In his first ever appearance in the Round of 16 of a slam, Zverev wasn’t overawed in the slightest, and after three hours and 33 minutes, the 29-year-old completed the best win of his career, 7-5 5-7 6-2 6-4.
"It was definitely the best match of my life," said Zverev.
"Not only because it was a best-of-five set match, it was at a slam. It was just incredible."
"I believed in myself. I believed in my game," he continued. "I believed that playing serve and volley against him and slicing a lot, trying to destroy his rhythm was going to work, which it did in the end.
"I felt comfortable going for three, four sets, even though it wasn't that hot, but it was still pretty warm. I felt like I could hang in there with him, sometimes rally and come in quickly. I feel like everything just worked out well."
After a combination of wrist, rib and back injuries forced him off the tour and to a ranking as low as 1,067 in March 2015, Zverev made his comeback to tennis last year, with a run to the Shanghai Masters quarter-finals and the Swiss Indoors semi-finals in Basel propelling him back into the top 100. Now, after his stunning Murray triumph and reaching his first major quarter-final, Zverev is projected to rise to at least a career-high No. 35 in the world.
Making Zverev’s run even more remarkable was that he was two sets down and saved match points in his second round contest with John Isner, with the German eventually prevailing 9-7 in the fifth. After living in younger brother ‘Sascha’ Zverev’s shadow for much of the last couple of years, this is well and truly Mischa’s time to shine and take in the spotlight on the big stage.
But can he keep his dream running going against Federer? Nobody gave him a chance against Murray, and on paper, Federer should have too much variety and a strong net game of his own for Zverev to handle. But who knows. Zverev is playing inspired tennis, and if he can serve well and put his volleys away, Federer will be under pressure.