Winning a five-set thriller at age 38? You bet, this is why Roger Federer still plays

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MELBOURNE, Australia — At the end of a crazy Friday at the Australian Open, when Serena Williams was eliminated, defending champion Naomi Osaka was ousted and Caroline Wozniacki played the last match of her career, 38-year-old Roger Federer stood tall after a five-set thriller which finished just before 1 a.m. local time.

His 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (10-8) victory against the valiant Australian John Millman was as exhausting as it was exhilarating. It was the first 10-point tiebreak on Rod Laver Arena (the rule was introduced last year), and Federer’s 100th win at the Australian Open.

As Federer gathered his thoughts after the victory, a video of some of his victories in his 21 visits to Melbourne flashed up on the screen, including his six title wins, the most recent coming in 2018. The hair may be thinning but the desire to push himself to the limit remains; and even on a night when his forehand misfired more often than not (48 of his 82 unforced errors came from that shot), he trusted it one last time when he guessed right and ripped it crosscourt for the winner on his first match point.

And though it’s anyone’s guess as to how Federer holds up after four hours of intense battle, it showed, yet again, he still has the desire to put himself on the line and do everything to get the job done.

“I think if I do play tennis, it’s because of winning titles, trying to win as many matches as possible, [enjoying] myself out on court,” he continued, “but also being in epic matches like this. … All of a sudden you turn the whole thing around within, like, two minutes and it was so worthwhile, you know, everything that I have gone through.”

In a career with so many highs, there are still many matches Federer would like to have a second go at it if he could. From his defeat against Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final to his agonizing loss from double match point against Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon last summer, there are some losses that stick in the mind.

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Roger Federer comes from an 8-4 deficit in a match tie-break to see off John Millman in a thriller.

But the one loss he had desire to return to, simply happy he survived in one piece: His four-set, fourth-round loss against Millman at the 2018 US Open, a match played in brutal conditions with temperatures in the 80s and more than 75-percent humidity, heightened by the fact the roof had been closed.

“I don’t know anything remotely close,” Federer recalled before Friday’s rematch. “I was just happy it was over. I never had that. [Usually] I would rather go back in time, if I could play that match again, but I don’t have that feeling about that match. I was just happy the US Open was over … I almost passed out [from the heat]. He was fine, he’s from Queensland. He didn’t come to check to see if I’d passed out afterwards, but that’s OK.”

The comment was said with a big smile on his face. Federer and Millman are good friends, the Swiss having invited the Australian out to practice with him in the 2017 offseason, and the pair have trained together many times since. It also gave Federer a heightened awareness of just how dogged a competitor Millman is and how good a player he has become. The 30-year-old has firmly establishing himself in the biggest tournaments around the world and is starting to make a good living for himself, with almost $1 million won in prize money in 2019.

It all set the stage for Friday night, as everyone from fans to Federer’s wife, Mirka, were going through the ringer as Federer struggled to cope with the consistency of Millman’s hitting, the depth of his groundstrokes and his seemingly unending willingness to run down everything. And when Millman went up 2-1 in the final set, with Federer tiring, it again brought back memories of the Australian’s big upset against Federer at 2018 US Open.

At 8-4 in the deciding match tiebreak, Millman, ranked 47th in the world but one of the gustiest competitors on the ATP Tour, had the match in his hands. But after the Australian was so consistent throughout, a couple of mistakes let Federer back in and the six-time Aussie champion took his chance and rode his luck. His forehand winner capped six straight unanswered points to seal the victory and set up a fourth-round battle against Marton Fuscovics of Hungary.

“I think experience helps, to stay calm and maybe not feel too stressed, even down a break in the fifth, you know it’s still a long way to go,” Federer said. “But it’s also tactical, I was really trying to figure things out, it took me forever, conditions were slow, the balls were fluffing up. I tried with spin sometimes, that wasn’t working. I tried with slice, that wasn’t working, and then [he had] a little bit of luck because it was so close.

“John played a great match. I was getting ready to explain myself in the press conference. The demons are always there, but what a match. John deserves half of this win.”

Millman said he thought he had done little wrong in a great match.

“I played some all right tennis to get there, to that stage,” he said, referring to 8-4 in the tiebreak. “I could have gone away easily in that fourth set. Roger was playing pretty well, had the momentum. I thought I turned it around pretty well. Yeah, left everything out there.

“That’s what the best players, I guess, do,” Millman said of Federer and the match. “I’ll have to go back and watch it.”

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