MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Champion Novak Djokovic foiled a stirring fightback from Roger Federer to defeat the Swiss 6-1 6-2 3-6 6-3 at the Australian Open on Thursday and charge into a fifth successive grand slam final.
Storming to a two-set lead within an hour, Djokovic appeared destined to complete a stinging humiliation under the lights of Rod Laver Arena but the net-rushing Federer responded brilliantly in the third as a partisan crowd roared him on.
In a fourth set rivened by tension, the world number one took Federer’s serve in the eighth game, benefiting from a lucky netcord that gave him a crucial break point, and served out the match to love in two hours and 19 minutes.
“Definitely I’ve played an unbelievable first two sets but that’s what is necessary against Roger,” the Serb said courtside after setting up his sixth final at Melbourne Park against either Andy Murray or Milos Raonic.
“I knew he was going to be aggressive and try to mix up his pace and come to the net.
“I executed everything perfectly. A two-set lead is more comforting but it was a battle in the end.”
Djokovic continued his grand slam mastery of the 34-year-old Swiss, having beaten him in six of their previous seven matches at the majors, including last year’s Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.
The head-to-head record between the pair has now also swung symbolically in Djokovic’s favour, with the Serb edging ahead 23-22 in their 45 matches.
The record 15th grand slam encounter between the pair was billed as a blockbuster but threatened to be a one-sided rout.
The 15,000 spectators barely had time to settle in their seats before Djokovic had sewn up the first set in 22 minutes.
Picking off Federer’s serve at will, Djokovic broke him twice and trounced him in the baseline rallies before closing out the set with a huge serve down the ‘T’.
The horror show quickly resumed for the Swiss, who was broken in the third game to love and again in the fifth. The set lasted scarcely 30 minutes.
As the players returned to court, the crowd clamoured for a Federer comeback, and the Swiss rallied to pressure the Serb’s serve in an epic sixth game.
Djokovic saved three break points but finally folded with a fourth as a net-rushing Federer forced a passing shot wide.
In the stands, Federer’s wife Mirka could barely bring herself to watch as her husband laboured to serve out the set but Djokovic fired a forehand long to raise thunderous cheers from the terraces.
The weather turned in Djokovic’s favour, with rain causing a delay to shut the stadium’s roof and Federer’s momentum was stalled.
The pair stubbornly held serve until Djokovic pounced in a dramatic eighth game.
At 15-30, in one of the points of the tournament, Federer scrambled back to retrieve a lob then to the corner to lace a backhand winner down the line that prompted a standing ovation from the crowd.
But the elation ended seconds later when Federer made a desperate rush forward and Djokovic’s shot deflected off the net and past the Swiss’s racquet to hand the Serb break point.
The Swiss threw caution to the wind by attempting a second-serve serve-and-volley but Djokovic blasted a marvellous cross-court return to capture the decisive break.
Closing out the match when Federer netted a backhand, Djokovic was left celebrating another memorable victory as he stood one win away from a record sixth title at Melbourne Park.
“My rhythm, my timing, all that, was a bit off in the beginning,” Federer told reporters.
“He took advantage of that and did an unbelievable job for a long, long time tonight.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom, editing by Pritha Sarkar)