So the 17th seed, an ageing Swiss guy playing his first tournament in six months, meets the current No.5 for a place in the n Open quarter-finals. Or, put another way: Roger Federer versus Kei Nishikori. Who wins?
“Yeah, sure, he’s the favourite. Maybe. I don’t know,” smiled Federer, having reached the fourth round for the 15th time in the last 16 years. “It doesn’t matter. I still have to play Kei. If he’s the favourite, I’m the favourite, I don’t know. But he’s definitely played better and more tennis in recent months. But then again, it’s a new season. We’ll see what happens.
“I’m a big fan of his game. He’s got one of the best backhands out there. I love how he can crush it down the line or crosscourt. He’s got wonderful second serve returns. He’s fast on his legs. Strong in his mind. I know how tough he is as the match goes along. He finds his range and his rhythm, he’s tough to stop.
“We had a great match at the (ATP) World Tour Finals a bit over a year back. I’ve lost to him a couple of times as well. I’m aware of the big test for me.”
But also happy with those he has passed so far, particularly a vintage third-round performance against 10th seed Tomas Berdych that was so sparkling it could well have been produced by Federer’s French champagne house of choice. What was supposed to be his first serious challenge since that extended knee sabbatical surprised even the 17-slam man.
“This one’s going to be completely different to Tomas. Not so much just serving, serving, serving, but there’s going to be more rallies, even though the surface remains fast,” he said after winning 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. “It’s not easy to control the ball … when you serve well, it pays dividends. I hope I can keep that up against Kei. It’s definitely an exciting match for me, anyway.”
As it is for the Japanese superstar, who has logged two wins in his six career attempts against Federer, and now reached at least the last 16 at Melbourne Park for the sixth consecutive year. He saw only a few points of the Berdych match, having also advanced in straight sets past qualifier Lukas Lacko, but will make Federer hit a ton of balls.
“It’s always great to play Roger. It’s big challenge for me,” said Nishikori, the 2014 US Open finalist. “I’m just happy to play him because I think we needed him on the tour. Happy to see him back 100 per cent.”
Federer did not expect he would be ready to play such a short, commanding match so soon: relishing the “frontrunner” role, not facing one break point, “crazy” quick to start, ticking every box. “I have had this feeling before, where you feel like you’re probably not going to lose this one if you keep being focused,” said the four-time Open champion, most recently in 2010. “I did get nervous at the end. I still believed that there is going to be that hiccup, it has to happen. It didn’t happen and I’m here now and it’s good.”
He was also as surprised as anyone by six-time champion Novak Djokovic’s shock loss to unfashionable Uzbekistani Denis Istomin. “I love Denis. He’s the nicest guy. He’s got a lot of fans in the locker room because he’s always super sweet and everything. Great player, good shot-maker. I didn’t see this one coming,” said Federer.
“I’m happy for Denis. It’s a tough one for Novak. Until the very, very end, I still believed that Novak was going to turn it around, like everybody else. It’s why we love live sports. It’s why we watch it. It’s why people come to the stadium, people watch it on the TV. You just don’t know the outcome. Even though the odds are crazy in somebody’s favour, there’s always the chance for the big upset. That’s why I’m a big sports fan. Voila.”