What are numbers, anyway? Roger Federer, the 35-year-old No.17 seed at this year’s Australian Open, made a mockery of his age and standing in the men’s ranks on Friday night to surge through to the fourth round of Australian Open 2017 at Tomas Berdych’s expense, 6-2 6-4 6-4.
It was a heady statement of intent from the four-time former champion, who faces No.5 seed Kei Nishikori in the last 16, with world No.1 Andy Murray a potential opponent in the quarterfinal. As far as Federer is concerned, that sounds just fine.
“I was hoping to play good against better-ranked players, because I guess I know them more and I know these matchups so well over the years,” said Federer, delighted to have rediscovered some vintage form so soon into his comeback. “Sometimes it's easier to play against them than it is against a qualifier, somebody I've only played a few times.
“I didn't expect it as such, to be honest – especially not this kind of a scoreline, especially not having to save no break points, just always rolling on the serve. That was a big surprise to me.
“It was a great mental test for me to see if I could stay in the match point-for-point, keep rolling. I was able to do that. That's where I'm just really happy that I was able to deliver that. From the baseline, honestly I felt worlds better than in the first couple of rounds.”
When it counted, Federer delivered. Having played like a thirtysomething returning from six months on the sidelines against qualifiers Jurgen Melzer and Noah Rubin, Federer played like a 17-time Grand Slam champion against No.10 seed Berdych, outclassing the two-time semifinalist in one hour, 30 minutes.
Every facet of Federer’s game was purring. He dropped 14 points in 14 service games – just two on his first serve – and denied the Czech a single break point. On return he was deadly, breaking four times, and strung a seven-game stretch together from 1-2 down in the first to lead by a set and a break with less than half an hour on the match clock.
Federer’s backhand, so often the barometer of his form and confidence, was devastating. Three stood out: the first drew a stunned expression from Berdych’s coach Goran Ivanisevic in the stands; the second, a return winner on the rise late in the second set, and the third on match point. Of his 40 winners, 10 came from his one-hander.
“It's just crazy how quick I got out of the blocks,” Federer said of his third-round display after his stuttering start to the Open. “That's what I was hoping for, because I wasn't able to do that in the first two matches. Today I was able to. What a difference it was in the feeling afterwards.
“It's a big relief. But like I said at the beginning of the tournament, any result was going to be a good result for me just because I can test myself in a match situation against professional tennis players. That's what it's about for me this week.”
When the draw came out, forecasters noted that Federer would likely have to beat five top-10 players for the first time in his career to claim his 18th major in Melbourne. That still may well be the case – but in this form, no player will relish stepping on court with the Swiss, a fate that awaits Nishikori on Sunday.
“If he's the favourite, I'm the favourite, I don't know,” Federer said of Nishikori, who trails their head-to-head 4-2. “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.
“But 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. If he finds his range and his rhythm, he's tough to stop.”
The same applies to the man himself. May the best backhand win.