16, Not 17


It was a sweet 16 for Roger Federer Down Under.

The king of men’s tennis took out the latest challenger to his throne, Scotsman Andy Murray, to extend his record Grand Slam total to 16.

Fed, secured his fourth Aussie Open in a decisive tiebreak by staving off five set points in the third, when Murray finally entered (and exited) the match.

Being the man in Melbourne denied Murray his first Slam title, in the contender’s 17th try at a major. That’s when Federer won his first, over Aussie Mark Philippoussis at Wimbledon in 2003.

Unlike Juan Martin Del Potro, who ended Fed’s five-tournament winning streak at Flushing Meadow last year with a club of a forehand, Murray didn’t have the one weapon to make Federer truly uncomfortable.

Federer, meanwhile, won this match 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (13-11) with his backhand, the wing where Murray was thought to have the clear advantage. Not only did the slice keep him in countless rallies, but when he hit through, Federer grabbed some winners or set things up for his still monstrous forehand.

In what was beginning to approach the drama of the famous 18-16 McEnroe-Borg at Wimbledon, Federer finally prevailed on his third championship point: a Murray error, after the Swiss maestro earlier missed a passing shot up the line wide and then let Murray flick one by, after a pretty drop shot set-up.

By pushing the UK’s Grand Slam drought to 74 years (not the 150,000 years Federer joked about or taunted his opponent with during a pre-match press conference) and keeping Fred Perry a household name as the last Brit to win one (the 1936 U.S. Open), Federer has completed a major turnaround.

After being surpassed by Rafael Nadal in 2008, with the Spaniard saving Borg’s Wimbledon winning streak from Fed, and then tearfully dropping a five-setter to his nemesis in Melbourne last January, Roger has won three of the past five majors and would be sitting on a calendar slam, if not for del Potro’s coming out party at the Open last September.

Meanwhile, Rafa’s knees and body have broken down. So, it’s not surprising that the tennis world’s is hyping Murray, who also fell to Fed at the 2008 U.S. Open, as the next one to challenge the tour’s top player with twin daughters.

Until Murray can break through, Rafa can return to form or Andy Roddick can reemerge, it’s Fed’s world without rival, like it was for much of the last decade, and ratings are likely to stagnate. While the numbers were no doubt giant in the UK, the Nielsens here for ESPN2 surely lagged the 0.7 rating average and 836,000 viewers who tuned it for Rafa-Roger at the 2009 Aussie.

Now, normal sleep patterns can return for those who have been managing the 16-hour time differential (east coast) to Melbourne over the past couple of weeks.

Those who want to see for yourself, or relive the Melbourne master’s work again: ESPN2 has you covered with a repeat of the men’s final at 10 a.m. and Tennis Channel at 1 p.m. The latter also will encore Serena Williams’ win over the returning Justin Henin in the women’s final at 4 p.m.