Australian Open: He's not finished but can finish

Roger Federer's win over Andy Murray proved that critics should not count the Swiss, with his overhauled body, out yet - not even against his nemesis Rafael Nadal.

ROGER Federer showed us this Open his racket can still sing and then on Wednesday he reminded us he can still scrap. Beauty is just fine wrapping without the substance of grit. he had both.

The first ensures he is remembered at the Open, the second ensured he remains at this Open.

In a match of intrigue rather than marvel, the Swiss lurched from sublime to skittish to steadfast before beating the higher- ranked Andy Murray 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3 in three hours and 20 minutes. In truth, he should have left the court an hour earlier.

He served for the match at 5-4 in the third set and then held two match points in the tiebreaker.

His anxiety at the finish was like a Federer of the recent past, his ability to finally finish suggests a new Federer for the future.

The big match used to define Federer yet lately it has discomforted him. Younger men pay homage in the press room but show scant mercy on court. In his last 11 matches against the Top 5 he has won only two. He has pushed them but rarely prevailed.

Defeat burdens the memory but it is his bothersome back which turned into a weight. In a "game of movement", as he put it, this is fatal. Now he has come back to running life and is in his 11th consecutive Open semi-final.

This tournament may not be won, but the building blocks of a comeback are arranging themselves.

From Federer's overhauled body has come a repaired confidence.

He went to the net 66 times because he can sprint. He was lithe in defence because his feet answer his urgent command.

For a fellow of dainty footwork it is vital. "Because I'm feeling good physically I can think about tactics I want to play."

With his legs as a working engine, on Wednesday he resurrected Federer the retriever and only the fluid player can transition between defence and attack so swiftly.

"That's what I used to do so well. (Now) I am explosive out there. I can get to balls, I am not afraid to get to balls." In his words are found the relief of a freer athlete.

Even his little flounder in the third set had its ironic silver lining.

To have won in a straight sets stroll may have assisted his body, but an extended battle with Murray had a benefit. If physically he made a point, mentally he also scored one. With Rafael Nadal next in the semis, it is a workout of the fighting brain he needed.

It was a match of many moods as "come ons" rent the air, a controversial scoop shot was hit by Federer and a single game went 19 minutes eight seconds. Yet, as always, it started sedately.

Footballers can begin matches at a hectic pace, whistling down wings for first-minute goals. Tennis is rarely so initially frenetic.

Like circling boxers throwing exploratory jabs, tennis players carefully feel out the opposition.

Then suddenly it starts raining blows and Federer struck the first ones.

He may be of advancing years, yet it scarcely showed as he advanced to the net. Even when passed, or lobbed, he stayed faithful to tactic. His striking was clean and also his scoresheet.

Two sets, no break points, full control.

Murray, his back surgically fixed, was understandably errant yet unsurprisingly pushy when faced with defeat. It is his champion's instinct. But he could not have survived in the third set without help from Swiss passivity.

Failure to convert break points is a known Federer disease: in the third set he converted one of five, in the fourth one of 10.

Resigned, he said: "I miss more than others. I get used to it." Sometimes, he smiled, "I want to toss the ball outside the stadium but I keep my composure".

It is good manners and good thinking. On Wednesday, in the fourth, he waited and waited and it was worth it.

Now Nadal waits for him and for the Spaniard it has always been worth it. He leads Federer 22-10 - a score so lopsided that calling it a rivalry is merely polite - and has not lost to him at a Grand Slam since 2007. The Swiss is trying to find his best, but Nadal remains the best.

Nadal was bruised by Kei Nishikori and battered by Grigor Dimitrov or certainly it looked that way. Except the scoreboard noted he had played two men but in total lost one set. On a wounded knee and with a taped hand.

Speed itself may not fell Nadal, but strategy may and Federer conceded he will be listening to new coach Stefan Edberg.

"We clearly spoke about playing Rafa (when they met in Dubai) ... and he thought he had some good ideas."

Then, his talking done, the Swiss disappeared, yet words continue to follow him at this Open.

Resurrection. Revival. Return. He will not mind them, but is grateful that another one is now rarely uttered. Retire. "It started in 2009 and here we are five years down the road and I'm getting asked less. So that's a good thing". No, for tennis, he still is.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


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