MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Roger Federer was not going to go gently, of course, no matter how daunting the number of match points — his opponent accumulated seven! — no matter how achy his 38-year-old legs, no matter how slow his serves, no matter how off-target his groundstrokes.
Federer still plays for the love of these stages and circumstances. Still yearns for more trophies, too. Down to his very last gasp, time and again, against someone a decade younger, 100th-ranked Tennys Sandgren of the United States, Federer somehow pulled off a memorable comeback to reach the Australian Open semifinals for the 15th time.
Despite all sorts of signs he was not quite himself for much of the match, Federer beat the biceps-baring, hard-hitting, court-covering Sandgren 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-3 on Tuesday in a rollicking quarterfinal that appeared to be over long before it truly was.
“As the match went on, I started to feel better again and all the pressure went away,” 20-time Grand Slam champion Federer said afterward, mentioning that his groin muscle was bothering him. “I don’t deserve this one, but I’m standing here and I’m obviously very, very happy.”
He will face defending champion Novak Djokovic or No. 32 Milos Raonic next. Djokovic entered that quarterfinal Tuesday night with a 9-0 head-to-head edge against Raonic, whose best Grand Slam showing was a runner-up finish at Wimbledon four years ago.
Federer vs. Sandgren was dramatic as can be.
Federer was involved in a dispute with the chair umpire over cursing. Left the court for a medical timeout early in the third set, then was visited by a trainer later for a right leg massage.
And, above all, found himself in a tense tussle with Sandgren, a 28-year-old from Tennessee who’s never been a major semifinalist and was trying to become the lowest-ranked man in the Australian Open’s final four since Patrick McEnroe — John’s younger brother — was No. 114 in 1991.
Oh, how close Sandgren came to the monumental upset. And imagine the heartbreak for someone who toiled for years on lower-level tours then was thrilled just to take this stage against Federer.
After rolling through the second and third sets as Federer’s serves dropped from an average of 112 mph to 105 mph and his unforced errors totaled 30, Sandgren led 5-4 in the fourth set. With Federer serving, Sandgren had a trio of opportunities to end things and complete a career-defining victory. On the first, Sandgren dumped a backhand into the net. On the second, he pushed a forehand wide. On the third, another forehand found the net.
On they went to a tiebreaker, which included the bizarre sight of a ballkid running into Sandgren’s right calf at the 3-all changeover. Didn’t seem to bother the guy, though, because he grabbed the next three points to put himself a single point from winning.
But Sandgren failed to close the deal at 6-3 … or at 6-4 … or at 6-5 … or at 7-6.
“Got to get lucky sometimes, I’ll tell you that,” Federer said. “Because in those seven match points, you’re not under control.”
On Federer’s own second chance to take that set and force a fifth, Sandgren hit a ball that landed near the baseline. Federer thought it might be out — he turned to look at a line judge for a call that never came — yet barely flicked it back in a defensive manner, and Sandgren’s overhead smash went long.
Federer wagged his right index finger overhead — the universal sign for “I’m No. 1!” — and was on the right path. He ended the victory with a service winner at 119 mph, a little more than an hour after first staring down defeat.
Federer has won six Australian Opens and never lost to anyone ranked worse than 54th. But Sandgren, whose career tour-level record is under .500, played superbly — he produced edges of 27-5 in aces, 73-44 in total winners — for all but the seven most crucial points.
He won every point he needed to — more than Federer, even, 161 to 160 — except that little matter of winning the last.
Other than the first set and the fifth, Federer’s footwork was hardly perfect, the lower-body push he normally gets to add oomph to forehands and serves nonexistent.
At the U.S. Open last September, it was Federer’s upper back and neck that bothered him in a five-set quarterfinal loss to Grigor Dimitrov, who was ranked 78th at the time.
In this tournament, the No. 3-seeded Federer still hasn’t played anyone ranked better than No. 41 Filip Krajinovic, whom he beat in the second round. Federer was pushed to the brink in the third round by No. 47 John Millman, two points from defeat before coming back to claim a fifth-set tiebreaker. And in the fourth round, Federer dropped the opening set to No. 67 Marton Fucsovics.
The last two men’s quarterfinals are Wednesday: No. 1 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 5 Dominic Thiem, and No. 7 Alexander Zverev vs. No. 15 Stan Wawrinka.
One women’s semifinal was set Tuesday, and it will feature No. 1 Ash Barty, trying to become the first Australian singles champion at home since the 1970s, against No. 14 Sofia Kenin, a 21-year-old American never before this far at any major tournament.
Wednesday’s quarterfinals are No. 4 Simona Halep vs. No. 28 Anett Kontaveit, and unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza vs. No. 30 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Barty pulled out a tough first set and then pulled away in the second of a 7-6 (6), 6-2 victory over No. 7 Petra Kvitova, the big-swinging lefty who twice has won Wimbledon and was last year’s runner-up in Australia.
Barty is the host country’s first female semifinalist since Wendy Turnbull in 1984.
Kenin defeated 78th-ranked Ons Jabeur of Tunisia 6-4, 6-4 in the first Grand Slam quarterfinal for each.
“Obviously, playing with more confidence,” said Kenin, who was born in Russia and moved to Florida as a baby. “I really feel like I can do well.”
She has yet to face a seeded player but now makes a big jump in quality of opponent.
Barty won last year’s French Open for her first major trophy, defeating Kenin in the fourth round there. That was Kenin’s top performance at any Slam until now; she beat Coco Gauff in the fourth round here.
“She’s having an incredible run,” Barty said. “She’s really developed her game over the past 12 to 18 months.”
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