I woke up about 4:30 a.m. (ET) Saturday to attend to matters. I flipped the box to ESPN2. Boy, I’m glad I did.
There was Roger Federer about to enter a fifth-set in a third-round match at the Australian Open against No. 49 Janko Tipsarevic, a man who had a losing record in 2007. Federer had just won the fourth, 6-1, and if history has taught us anything the world’s No. 1 does a pretty good imitation of a steamroller. This will be quick, I thought.
At 5:14 a.m. — 9:14 p.m. in Melbourne — a Federer serve resulted in Tipsaveric netting a backhand, giving him a 6-7, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1, 10-8 escape (no tiebreakers in the ultimate set Down Under).
Over the course of 45 minutes or thereabouts, there was plenty to digest. Tipsaveric’s hard flat serve was pulling Federer off court, setting up put-aways or angled winners. Patrolling the baseline with aplomb, the Serb also showcased a scintillating forehand.
In Federer’s court, I learned, that if he lost the match (or before the semifinals) and Rafael Nadal took the Aussie title, Rafa would finally rise from the No. 2 spot and put an end to Roger’s reign as tennis royalty since he assumed the throne on Feb. 2, 2004. So much for 2008 being Federer’s Grand Slam coronation — he needs two to tie Pete Sampras’ total of 14, and is scheduled to meet the American in another exhibition match at Madison Square Garden on March 10. A loss Down Under and given his past French futility against Nadal on the red clay of Roland Garros and Federer’s quest for immortality would surely be delayed.
As day turned into night in Melbourne, ESPN2 provided shots of 20,000 awaiting entry into the evening session, to be highlighted by local hero Lleyton Hewitt against Marcos Baghdatis. They were watching the action inside Rod Laver Arena unfold on the giant screens on the site.
What they saw was Federer pushed to the limits. Although ESPN2’s commentators Darren Cahill and Cliff Drysale informed that he never faced a break point in the final two sets and graphics indicated a huge differential in points won (mostly from the fourth set beat-down) winner/error differential and aces (39-14), Federer was in trouble.
Serving second in the set, he was playing catch-up, the pressure and history (seeking an 11th consecutive Grand Slam final, a third consecutive Aussie Open and fourth overall) tilted against him. It wasn’t until the penultimate game when a pair of lobs set up a forehand passing shot that gave him his fifth break point (in 21 chances) that Federer assumed control. He then served out the 4-hour, 27-minute match.
Given the 16-hour time differential to the East Coast, much of the Australian action often goes unnoticed. American Andy Roddick, seeded sixth, lost a five-setter the night/day (I think) before. The prelims to Federer/Tipsaveric were a couple of upsets on the women’s side as No. 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 6 Anna Chakvetadze were dismissed; the ouster of No. 7 Fernando Gonzalez; and James Blake rallying from two sets down to top Frenchman Sebastian Grosjean.
Although Federer doesn’t pack the personality and Nielsen firepower of his buddy Tiger Woods, the Swiss stalwart is an on-court virtuoso, every bit the equal — if not the superior — of golf’s unquestioned No. 1. I’d say Federer’s profile would be higher if he were American, but Sampras never captured the imagination of the masses either, testimony perhaps to tennis’ standing below golf as a TV sport.
Still, Federer is certainly worth watching, regardless of the time (ESPN2’s coverage of the men’s final is set for 3:30 a.m. (ET) Jan. 27). Presumably, more of us will get to see (more of ) Federer’s performance against Tipsaveric during ESPN2, ESPN Classic and/or Tennis Channel’s (alas, Cablevision doesn’t carry that service) coverage on Saturday and over the holiday weekend.
(P.S.: ESPN2, in what was a marathon day from Melbourne, encored the Federer/Tipsaveric classic, following the Hewitt/Baghdatis marathon. Hewitt’s five-set triumph didn’t end until around 4:30 a.m. Sunday in Melbourne, where there were will still some 9,000 in attendance at Rod Laver Arena, and 12:30 p.m. in New York.)