Roger Federer served poorly. He volleyed poorly and closed out sets poorly, too. Now he’s gone, beaten at the US Open by an opponent ranked outside the top 50 for the first time in his illustrious career.
Looking slow and tired on a sweltering night in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the No 2-seeded Federer double-faulted 10 times, failed to convert a trio of set points and lost 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3) in the fourth round to John Millman.
For Federer, it was all about the heat and the humidity. With the temperature in the 80s, even with the sun down, and the humidity at about 75 per cent, he was unable to summon his usual verve.
“It was just one of those nights where, I guess, I felt I couldn’t get air. There was no circulation at all. I don’t know, for some reason I just struggled in the conditions tonight. It’s one of the first times it’s happened to me,” the 37-year-old Federer said. “It’s uncomfortable. You clearly just keep on sweating more and more and more and more as the match goes on. You lose energy as it goes by. But John was able to deal with it better.”
It’s only the second time in Federer’s past 14 appearances at the US Open that he’s lost before the quarter-finals. He is, after all, a five-time champion at the tournament, part of his men’s-record haul of 20 Grand Slam titles.
“Roger’s a hero of mine. I look up to him,” said Millman, a 29-year-old Australian. “He didn’t have his best day, I know that. Probably, to beat him, I needed him to have an off-day and I needed to have a decent, good day.”
Millman, who had never made it past the third round at a Slam until last week, now faces No 6 seed Novak Djokovic. Hours before, Djokovic left the court for a medical timeout – the second time during the tournament he’s sought help from a doctor – during what would become an otherwise straightforward 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 win over Joao Sousa of Portugal.
“I’m not 21 anymore. That was ten years ago. I still don’t feel old, but at the same time there is a little biological clock that is not really working in your favour,” Djokovic said.
He reached the quarter-finals for an 11th consecutive time in New York as he bids for a third US Open championship and 14th Grand Slam trophy.
The other quarter-final in the bottom half of the draw will be a rematch of the 2014 final: Marin Cilic against Kei Nishikori.
Millman was adamant he would not be intimidated by Federer, but this was a stunner. It was not simply because Federer lost – he entered the day 28-0 at the US Open, and 127-1 in all Grand Slam matches, against foes below No 50 in the ATP rankings – but how he lost. Federer held two set points while serving for the second at 5-4, 40-15 and did not pull through. Millman knew that was the turning point.
“At the start, I don’t think I was playing so well,” said Millman, who said he was sweating so much he had a hard time holding onto his racket. “But, yeah, as the match went on, I felt more comfortable, felt pretty good.”
Then Federer had a set point in the third at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, but again was stymied. In the fourth set, he went up a break at 4-2 but Federer uncharacteristically got broken right back with a sloppy game.
Then there was his serve. He put only 49 per cent of his first serves in play, including a hard-to-believe 31 per cent in the second set. In the final tiebreaker, he double-faulted twice in a row. The first obvious signs of trouble for Federer came far earlier, in the second game of the second set. He started that 15-minute struggle by missing 18 of his initial 20 first serves. While he eventually held there, he needed to save seven break points along the way. It was clear Federer was not at his best.
Millman, on the other hand, was producing a series of powerful groundstrokes on his way to what was his first ever victory over a player in the world’s top ten.
Federer would finish with 77 unforced errors, compared to Millman’s 28 and the way he hung his head at a changeover told its own story.
“When you feel like that,” Federer said, “everything is off.”