Thirty-five-year-old Roger Federer sputtered his way to the championship round of the Australian Open. Though his all-Swiss semifinal against Stan Wawrinka looked like a gutsy struggle on paper—five sets! 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3!—it actually lasted just over three hours, and the two major inflection points were injury timeouts. This was a match in fits and starts, with each player taking their turn to string some points together, with Federer seizing the last few to claim a spot in the final.
In the first two sets Federer looked quick with his movement and easy in his approaches, prowling the net 17 times in the first set and 12 times in the second. His preference in this matchup was to keep points succinct and ultra-aggressive, rather than letting Wawrinka get comfortably anchored on the baseline, where his heavy groundstrokes tend to overwhelm opponents. This tactic took its toll; here’s a peek into Wawrinka’s psyche, down 7-5, 4-2.
At the end of that set, Wawrinka took a medical timeout to get his (non-racket-smashing) knee taped, tending to an injury he’d nursed all tournament. Feeling that additional leg support, or maybe just the freedom you feel when two sets down, Wawrinka started hitting a little looser, placing the ball a little deeper, entrapping Federer in some of the grueling baseline rallies he might’ve hoped to avoid. Despite having no luck on return in the first two sets, he broke Federer four times to steal the third set in just 26 minutes. Federer, for his part, turned a little more tentative, only making six net approaches in the third set and five in the fourth. Fortunately for him, however, he’d bought himself a little time to hibernate.
“Midway through the fourth, when I realized my game was fading and Stan was having the upper hand on the baseline, I thought, ‘I guess that’s what I was always talking about,’” said Federer after the match. “But the good thing is, I did have the cushion from the first two sets. I think I did a lot of things right. I prepared the match in a way that allowed me to win it later on.”
After the fourth set, Federer took a cue from his countryman and did something odd for a guy who notoriously speeds matches along: He took a medical timeout to treat an adductor muscle injury in his leg. “I just said: You know what? I never take injury timeouts; Stan already took his, so people won’t be mad.”
In the fifth set Federer saved two break points and converted his own break to go up 4-2, and generally coasted from there.
It was an effective if uninspiring show, but he’ll need much more sustained offense to beat Nadal, should Rafa win his own semifinal today against Grigor Dimitrov. Roger gets a full two days to recover, which I’m sure he’ll cherish as the oldest man in a Grand Slam final since Ken Rosewall in 1974.