The 17-time Grand Slam champion had supposedly targeted the quarterfinals on his return to the tour after six months on the sidelines. Well, he got there, then got past Mischa Zverev, and now finds himself back in the Australian Open semifinals for a 13th time, preparing to face fellow former champion Stan Wawrinka for a place in the final.
On paper, Federer heads into the all-Swiss showdown as the favourite: the 35-year-old has an 18-3 career head-to-head record against Wawrinka, winning all 13 of their hard-court encounters. And while the No.4 seed’s three major titles have all been won in the four-year span since Federer’s Wimbledon 2012 triumph, the 31-year-old has never beaten his esteemed compatriot in a semifinal, has lost five of their six major meetings, and five of seven since 2014.
But tennis isn’t played on paper. Thursday night’s match will be played on Rod Laver Arena – a court that, for the past 10 days, has literally changed with the weather.
As Crowded House once sang, Melbourne is a city of ‘Four Seasons in One Day,’ and the true-blue courts of Melbourne Park are every bit as changeable. While the Plexicushion has been the Australian Open’s surface of choice since 2008, each year the players are asked about how the courts are playing – and each year the answers change. This year, the consensus suggests that the courts are playing faster than years gone by – something Patrick Mouratoglou noted at the start of the tennis summer Down Under.
“It will be an advantage for the players that play flatter, are aggressive baseliners or enjoy playing on faster courts because they know how to use well their opponents’ pace,” the Frenchman observed while coaching Serena Williams on the same surface in Auckland. “When the players use topspin, the court responds well to it and the ball bounces high, but when you play flatter, the ball takes a lot of speed.”
In the heat of the day, “the ball's flying through the air a little bit quicker, so the ball is coming onto you faster,” Andy Murray explained after his first-round match. But on a cool night the ball fluffs up, and cuts through the air far slower. It’s a barely perceptible change to the fan in the stands – but for the players, the physics of the game has changed.
Marcos Baghdatis was so mystified by the variation, he felt the need to share it with someone. “Impossible,” he told umpire Carlos Bernades midway through his second-round loss to Rafael Nadal, befuddled by playing conditions so alien to the other courts at Melbourne Park. “It’s so slow, so different to outside,” said the 2006 finalist.
Nadal concurred. “Conditions changed a lot,” said the Spaniard. “I didn't play during the night before I went on court – the ball change drastically, no? Is a big change of the ball during the day, and with warm conditions the ball is flying a lot, the ball is quick. During the night, the ball is big and heavy, no? Needed a little bit of time to understand what happened.”
When conditions are slower, time becomes both an ally and an enemy. Rallies get longer, winners are harder to come by, and players have time to set themselves and pick their spots – great for players with big, rangey swings; less so for those who thrive when opponents are starved of time to think.
“I think with faster conditions, the older generation – I’m saying like anything before 2005 – they are used to faster courts,” Federer said after his quick-fire quarterfinal win over Zverev.
We had to grow up in faster conditions. I remember my indoor courts that I used to play on in Switzerland, they were lightning.
“If you look at also Venus [Williams], she loves the fast courts. She always has. I think it is natural for her to play well on this surface, because maybe there's less thinking going on, you just play with instinct. That's maybe what older guys can do very well because they don't get frustrated in faster conditions. It's also an art to learn that.”
Federer comes in with the lion’s share of experience of the conditions on Rod Laver Arena: the four-time former champion has played all five of his matches this tournament on the centre stage, four during the night sessions. Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, has played three of his five matches on Margaret Court Arena, and four of his five matches during the day, including his two wins on Laver.
“Conditions were not easy,” Wawrinka said of his quarterfinal win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a match that finished at 5.30pm on a balmy, sunny day in Melbourne. “It was quite fast, was a little bit windy, flying a little bit. It was important to serve well.”
Things may be a little different out there when the shadows lengthen across Melbourne Park – and who that favours remains to be seen. Whatever the conditions, and whatever the outcome, it promises to be a special night for both men.
“It's always been different in my career when I played against Roger,” Wawrinka said.
“When I step on the court, it's always something special because he's the best player because of everything he's done in his career, because the way he's playing, because he's Swiss, because he's a really close friend, because of everything we've been together, Davis Cup, Olympics. It's always something special.”