Another Australian Open Surprise: The Return of the Old Roger Federer

MELBOURNE, Australia — A Grand Slam tournament that had already taken one big unexpected turn became a genuinely wild ride on Sunday as Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber, the world’s No. 1 singles players, were beaten by unseeded opposition in the fourth round. Roger Federer, meanwhile, continued to do an excellent impression of vintage Roger Federer.

The first week of this Australian Open has been one of the most surprising starts to a major tournament in recent years, with the six-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic losing to Denis Istomin in the second round and Murray losing to Mischa Zverev on Sunday.

“Two huge surprises, no doubt about that,” Federer said.

Where it heads in the second week could be just as unpredictable, but what is clear is that Federer in his current state of grace has the potential — even at age 35, after a six-month injury break — to make a deep run.

He was frequently the Federer whom fans remember on Sunday as he continued his bravura comeback. Two days after overwhelming 10th-seeded Tomas Berdych in straight sets in the third round, Federer had to dig much deeper to defeat fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.

The shotmaking and risk-taking were often astonishing, with both men leaping into their strokes and going after returns, and frequently finding the borders of the lines.

But Federer — after recovering from a 5-1 deficit in the opening set to push Nishikori into a tiebreaker — was the more convincing server throughout the match. And despite the eight-year age gap, he also looked like the fresher player down the stretch.

When Nishikori, 27, took an injury timeout while trailing by 3-0 in the fifth set to address his ailing left hip, Federer stayed on his feet, calmly jogging in place and waiting for the tussle to resume.

He finished with 83 winners and 47 unforced errors, winning 80 percent of his first-serve points against Nishikori, one of the game’s top-notch returners, and breaking him seven times.

When Federer closed out the match, his celebratory leap and wide-eyed look appeared every bit as intense as his responses to winning some of his record 17 Grand Slam men’s singles titles.

“The last shot, when it didn’t come back, it was an enormous joy,” he said.

It was a demanding physical test: 3 hours 24 minutes, with plenty of all-court acrobatics and power required. But his path forward in the tournament looks less daunting and potentially less draining with Murray shockingly out of contention.

They had been expected to meet in the quarterfinals if Federer could navigate past Nishikori. Instead, the 17th-seeded Federer will face the 50th-ranked Zverev, a serve-and-volley player who will strive to keep the rallies short and spend as much time at the net as possible.

It is unlikely, however, that Zverev will find Federer’s second serve as inviting as he found Murray’s. Zverev did not win a set against Federer in their two previous matches and did not win a game in their most recent one, a 6-0, 6-0 quarterfinal loss in Halle, Germany, on grass in 2013.

More successful has been Zverev’s 19-year-old brother, Sascha, who defeated Federer in the semifinals in Halle last year and in the Hopman Cup team competition this month.

“Of course I’m the big favorite in this match,” Federer said. “But I prefer to be the favorite. I did it for years and years. It makes me feel comfortable, and it’s better perhaps to play someone who keeps the points short and goes to net rather than Murray, who makes you hit thousands of forehands and backhands.”

Federer added: “But Zverev played really well today, and the surface allows you to play like that, and Zverev really used it well. It was impressive.”

Craig Tiley, the tournament director of the Australian Open, insists that this year’s hardcourt surface is no faster than last year’s. But it has certainly rewarded the sort of bold, attacking play that has often been neglected in the baseline-centric modern game.

Pat Cash, an Australian who was one of the sport’s premier volleyers when he won Wimbledon in 1987, was among those feeling nostalgic as Zverev pushed forward time and again versus Murray.

“One of the joys of being the style of player I was is that you used to get into players’ heads and mess with them, and that’s kind of what Zverev did, didn’t he?” Cash said.

“Your opponent just gets tighter and tighter, and they miss and get tighter still,” he added. “Zverev had to do it well, but he did it to perfection.

“Andy didn’t play his best tennis. He was tentative. If they play each other another 10 times, Murray will probably win them all, but this is the time Zverev put it all together. It’s a pity to lose the No. 1 seed, but it was an entertaining match and fun to watch, especially for us old-school guys.”

The last time neither the first- nor second-seeded player made the quarterfinals of a men’s Grand Slam tournament was at the 2004 French Open, when Federer and Andy Roddick lost early. In their absence, the unseeded Gastón Gaudio ended up the surprise champion after saving two match points and rallying from two sets down in the final against Guillermo Coria.

More conventional contenders still remain in this tournament, including Stan Wawrinka, the reigning United States Open champion, who will face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a former Australian Open finalist, in the other quarterfinal in the top half of the draw.

In the bottom half, Rafael Nadal, a 14-time Grand Slam singles champion, and third-seeded Milos Raonic, who reached last year’s Wimbledon final, remain in the mix.

Asked what a player should avoid if he wanted to win a Grand Slam, Wawrinka, who has won three such titles, thought for quite a while before responding.

“One of the things to avoid is to look at Murray and Djokovic losing and think the draw is open,” he said. “The draw is never open.”

In light of all the familiar and rising talent that remains in this Australian Open, that seems like particularly sound advice.

Roger Federer after his five-set victory over fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Credit Julian Smith/European Pressphoto Agency

Australian Open 2017: Roger Federer sees off Kei Nishikori in five sets

Roger Federer continued his remarkable return from injury by seeing off Kei Nishikori in five sets to reach his 13th Australian Open quarter-final.

The 35-year-old beat fifth seed Nishikori 6-7 (4-7) 6-4 6-1 4-6 6-3 to keep alive his hopes of an 18th Grand Slam and fifth Australian Open title.

Federer, seeded 17th, is playing his first competitive event since Wimbledon six months ago following a knee injury.

He will play Mischa Zverev, conqueror of Andy Murray, in the last eight.

Third seed Stan Wawrinka beat Andreas Seppi 7-6 (7-2) 7-6 (7-4) 7-6 (7-4) and goes on to face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Dan Evans 6-7 (4-7) 6-2 6-4 6-4.

After dropping his opening two service games, Federer found the range that had seen him hammer Tomas Berdych in the previous round, giving Nishikori a torrid time.

"It was a great match and a joy to be part of it," said Federer.

"I wasn't playing badly in the first set - it's a quick court and things happen fast. It was about staying calm at 4-0.

"I thought it can't get any worse from there. It was hard not to win that first set after all the effort but it paid off in the end. This is a huge win for me in my career."

From 5-1 down, the Swiss roared back - almost taking the set before losing out in a tie-break - and clinching the second set with a solitary break.

The third disappeared in a flash as Federer took apart the Nishikori serve, winning every point on the Japanese player's second serve, and he went close to breaking through again early in the fourth set.

Nishikori, 27, held on under huge pressure and forced a decider but it was Federer who proved the stronger, racing into a 3-0 lead and closing it out - to the delight of most of those on Rod Laver Arena.

Federer played just seven events in 2016 after injuring his knee the day after his Australian Open semi-final and having arthroscopic knee surgery.

He dropped out of the world's top 10 for the first time in 734 weeks last November, and arrived in Melbourne ranked 17th - his lowest position since May 2001.

The Swiss is the oldest man to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final since the 39-year-old Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open.

But the departure of first Djokovic and then Murray has thrown the draw wide open, with Federer, as well as the likes of Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal, in with a chance of adding to their Grand Slam tallies.

"I felt like if Rafa and myself can be healthy, yes, you can expect us in the quarter-finals," Federer added.

"That Novak and Andy are not, that is a big surprise. I never thought that Mischa Zverev and Denis Istomin would beat those two big guys.

"I guess it's good for tennis that a lot of guys believe stronger now that the top guys are beatable, are vulnerable, especially on a faster court. It happened completely in different circumstances.

"But two huge surprises. No doubt about that."

Australian Open: Roger Federer beats Kei Nishikori to advance to quarter-finals

The world number 17 warmed into the contest and overcame the hard-running Japanese with a 6-7 (7/4), 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 win on Sunday night in three hours and 24 minutes.

In the night's other match, USA's Coco Vanderweghe was just too good for defending champion Angelique Kerber, winning in straight sets in 68 minutes.

Nishikori was hampered by a hip problem during the fifth set and required court-side treatment.

Federer showed his displeasure at the delay, throwing a drink bottle during the break, but remained calm on the court.

The scoreline flattered Nishikori, who lost the winners count 83-42.

"He played his heart out ... he was hanging tough and playing really well on the big points," Federer said.

"This is a huge win for me in my career."

Federer's reward is a quarter-final against German Mischa Zverev, who beat top seed Andy Murray to earn a place in the last eight.

The absence of the top two seeds has increased hopes the Swiss champion will add to his collection of 17 major titles this month in Melbourne.

Against Tom Berdych in the third round Federer was irrepressible from the get-go, but on Sunday night he took a little longer to hit full stride.

Federer didn't face a break point all night against the Czech world number 10 but on Sunday he gave away eight in his opening two service games, falling 4-0 behind.

The veteran recovered to win four games in a row in front of an energised crowd, ensuring a tiebreak.

Federer was cruelled in the tiebreak when two lets were called on points he would have won, allowing Nishikori to charge on.

A set down, the 35-year-old's imperious serving game returned.

Combined with an aggressive approach to returning Nishikori — he hit nine clean winners off the world number five's serve — Federer turned the tables.

The solitary break of the second set put Federer back on terms. He was in control after claiming the third set in 26 minutes.

Nishikori was playing under duress, showing as much when he uncharacteristically threw his racquet.

From his despair he found a way back into the match, making just three unforced errors in the fourth set to level the match.

Federer finished the stronger, perhaps due to Nishikori's troubled hip, and never looked like losing the fifth set.

The win was Federer's 200th against top-10 opposition, a record.

It also ended a four-year drought in five-set matches against a top 10 opponent.

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