The last time Roger Federer was bounced in the third round of the Australian Open, it was 2001, and he was a talented, yet erratic, 19-year-old. Soon after, he’d soar to a period of almost continuous excellence that stretches all the way into the present: In fact, Federer had arrived in Melbourne this year riding a remarkable 11-year streak of making at least the semifinals of the Australian – an event he’s won four times before.
But that remarkable streak was snapped on Friday by an extremely unlikely opponent: 30-year-old Italian Andreas Seppi, who took out the 17-time Slam champion 6-4, 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-6(5), leaving the tennis world rather stunned.
Seppi’s victory was unexpected for plenty of reasons. There’s the fact that the 6-foot-3 Italian is ranked at a pedestrian No. 46 in the world (career high: No. 18 – three years ago) after a thoroughly mediocre 2014 season. Last year the man from Bolzano (population: 103,000) lost 6 more matches than he won, didn’t make a single ATP semifinal, and reached the third round of a Grand Slam only once.
And then there’s the matter of his head-to-head record against Federer, which, before Friday, stood at 0-10, with Seppi taking just one of the 22 previous sets they’d played.
Does Andreas Seppi play a dangerous, flashy brand of tennis that can take anyone out on a given day? Not really. The lanky Italian has a very smooth, if unspectacular game. His strokes are short and sweet, and he usually doesn’t go for a whole lot of power. Seppi is not really an aggressive baseliner; he prefers to patiently construct points with the aim of outmaneuvering his opponent. While the Italian can move well around the court, no one would call him a great defender. And you could definitely say that his serve should be better, particularly his feeble second delivery, given his height. Don’t get me wrong – Seppi is not a hack by any means. He’s a nice, pleasant player to watch, but one who is generally not a threat to the elite of men’s tennis (his record against the Top 10? It now stands at 7-67).
So how on Earth did Seppi find a way to derail what seemed like a very promising Australian Open for the recent Brisbane champion? Simply put, the Italian took most of the chances presented to him, and stubbornly refused to let Federer wrestle away control of the match just when it seemed inevitable that momentum had shifted his way.
These themes were evident from the start. A rather uneventful first set was marching along until 4-all, when Federer produced a sloppy service game that saw him get broken at love. The blip seemingly came out of nowhere – prior to that game, Seppi had only managed to win five return points in the previous four games, three of which came in the 2-2 game. Regardless, it took just a few minutes for Federer to get two chances to break back and deliver a fatal blow to Seppi’s confidence, an entirely familiar sequence throughout Federer’s career. However, the four-time Australian Open champion failed to get a 64 mph second serve return in play at 5-4, 15-40, and then shanked a forehand badly into the upper reaches of Rod Laver Arena.
— Australian Open (@AustralianOpen) January 23, 2015
Moments later, Seppi would serve out the first set, and head to his bench in a position he’d never enjoyed before: leading the mighty Roger Federer one set to none.
The following set was as pivotal as it was erratic. Federer produced another sloppy service game at 1-all, and once again Seppi took his chance. However, the Italian gave away the advantage immediately via a double fault, which seemed ominous. Not a whole lot of men let Roger Federer get back into a match and live to tell the tale. Still, it was the 17-time Slam champion who later had a bit of a brainfart. At 4-all and facing a break point, Federer approached the net after a very good serve that saw Seppi desperately chip a return high. Federer was in good position to smash away the lob, but decided to let it go, thinking it would land wide. It didn’t, and suddenly Andreas Seppi had the chance to serve for a two-set-to-none lead over the man who’d beaten him ten previous times.
Alas, the Italian was once again unable to make his advantage count, though this time the adversity came through ill fortune. Facing a break point in that key 5-4 game, Seppi saw a Federer shot clip the top of the net, somehow jump to his side of the court and bounce weakly out of his reach. If you’re keeping score at home, Seppi had lost break advantages in this set via a double fault, and now a let cord winner. Those are arguably the most deflating ways to lose an advantage in tennis, and given the big stage and the famous opposition, few expected the Italian to recover.
But recover he did. The set stretched into a tiebreaker, where Seppi found himself down 1-4 first, and then 3-5. But just when he needed it the most, the Italian veteran took advantage of some ill-advised net forays from Federer and took a two-sets-to-love lead behind some excellent passing shots.
Yet even when facing this kind of deficit, one couldn’t help but think of the nine previous times when Roger Federer had dug himself out of similar holes. Were we in store for the tenth such comeback? It sure seemed like it when Federer broke Seppi’s serve at 1-all in the third set, and soon after forced a fourth stanza.
By this point, a fired-up Federer had been puffing to himself in at least three different languages, and seemed intent on overwhelming the Italian by any means necessary. Momentum was firmly on his side, after all. Federer even had a chance to break in Seppi’s very first game of the fourth set, but wasted it by sending a regulation backhand long. The Italian took better care of his serve after that, all the way into another tiebreaker. As in the second-set decider, Federer found himself with a minibreak lead early on. In fact, the Swiss had minibreak advantages not once, not twice, but three times. And yet, Federer saw all his leads evaporate via errors. Even when a gorgeous cross-court backhand passing shot gave Federer a chance to force a fifth set with two serves and a 5-4 lead, a backhand unforced error and yet another excellent Seppi forehand turned what seemed like an inevitable fifth set into match point for the unheralded Italian.
And then, this happened:
This is some of what Federer had to say about it: “It’s clearly a big blow because I actually hit my forehand pretty good.” And he was right – there was little he could have done better. Federer put in a great return of serve that forced Seppi into an uncomfortable position, produced a very good forehand approach into the wide-open court and put himself in decent position to finish off the point at net. His odds of losing this specific point had to be very low. But the Italian somehow managed to get that desperate forehand stab to reach the ball, and the resulting shot sailed past the great Roger Federer, ending his Australian Open campaign before even the halfway mark.
What does this defeat mean for Roger Federer’s chances in 2015? It’s too early to say. He chalked his early exit up to a “bad day,” said he wished he “could have played better,” and recognized he “had chances to get back into it” but “let it slip.” If he looks at the numbers, he’ll be able to spot a few problematic areas. First and foremost, there’s the issue of winning just 34 percent of return points against a far from intimidating server. Then there’s the pedestrian 59 percent of first serves Federer produced. The 9 double faults stand out like a sore thumb, as do the 7-of-10 break chances that went unused. Oh, and how can we forget the 28 forehand unforced errors?
Adding insult to injury, it was the World No.2 who ended up winning one more total point than Seppi in the end. Unfortunately for Federer, tennis is not about who wins the most points – it’s about who wins the important ones. Following the match, the Feds said it best: “I guess I won the wrong points out there today.”
It’s hard to argue otherwise.