Roger Federer produced near-vintage tennis to beat Mischa Zverev in straight sets on day nine and turn speculation into serious conjecture that the 35-year-old Swiss, who is returning to the Tour after six months out injured, can win his fifth Australian Open.
In a night match that finished before it was even dark, he became the oldest player since the 39-year-old Jimmy Connors in 1991 to reach the semi-finals of a slam, and fewer sceptics are saying he can't go all the way after a 6-1, 7-5, 6-2 victory over the German left-hander that delighted his fans and sent a ripple of apprehension through the locker room.
He will have to get past his compatriot Stan Wawrinka in their 22nd contest in the semi-finals on Thursday to give himself a chance, but he is amazing everyone here with the standard of his tennis. He arrived with a ranking that had dipped to 17 after his enforced absence but in nearly every match has looked like the Federer who won the last of his 17 slams in 2012.
He said courtside of his expectations: “Not to play Stan in the semis, that’s for the sure. I thought I would maybe win a few rounds, the quarters if I had a good draw. I’m happy. I never thought I was going to do this good in the tournament.”
Federer said of his opponent, whom he double-bagelled in Halle four years ago, “I thought he played an incredible tournament, beating [John]Isner and Andy [Murray]. I was so happy for him. He’s gone through some tough times with injuries. I used to like those days when they come in a bit more. It makes for a lot of passing shots, super competitive. A baseline slugfest is OK too. We’ll probably get some of that in the next match.”
Federer hit an almost absurd 65 winners and just 13 unforced errors in an hour-and-a-half on the Rod Laver Arena, dominating the world No50 the way the world No1 Murray failed to do in the fourth round on Sunday. Three times in the third set – twice in the longest game of the match, the seventh – he charged the net on Zverev's second serve, and broke to set up the kill.
Zverev grabbed a break point in the eighth game, but there was little he could do about the closing forehand, ripped at an angle across the court, to the joy of the crazily cheering crowd.
Earlier, Wawrinka beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, 6-3. The little-discussed world No4, who struggled through five sets against the unseeded Martin Klizan in the first round and has steadily improved since, said: "I think today was my best match of the tournament." He will need to be as good as he was against Novak Djokovic in the final of the US Open to beat this version of Federer, though.
He exchanged angry words with Tsonga in the first set, which the Swiss won in a tie-break. “The beginning of the match was quite tense from both sides,” Wawrinka admitted. “It’s a tennis match. You can always have some tension. Everybody go on the court to win. Things can happen. But there is no problem after the match.”
The Frenchman would only say: “We just spoke about things that I think are only between him and me, and that’s it.”
There was no hostility in the match of the day. As warmly as the likeable battler Zverev was received after putting Murray out of the tournament, he had few friends against Federer. After 12 minutes he was 5-0 down, and the crowd were driven to that embarrassing point of cheering his first hold as if he had won the final.
Returning way more aggressively than Murray did, Federer was getting inside the baseline to keep Zverev pinned deeper than he wanted to be on his own serve.
A Federer double-fault for 30-all serving for the first set was hardly going to turn the tide, but Zverev had to hope, for his pride as much as anything else, that he could somehow get into the contest. Nadal beat him for the loss of just two games in Brisbane two weeks ago and this was a return to that level of nightmare, confirmed when Federer wrapped it up in 19 minutes, one less than the fastest of the tournament: Alexander Bublik's on the way to beating Federer's sometime hitting partner, Lucas Pouille in the first round.
Zverev did not have a lot of options; he trusted his serve-and-volley game against Murray and struck the Scot on one of his more passive days, which played into his soft hands at the net. He made the charge 14 times in the first set, but Federer neutralised his attack 10 times; this was akin to a billygoat battering a tank.
Still, Zverev held at the start of the second and a couple of impressive points seem to give him confidence – which was coming from an appallingly low level. Federer’s mastery of the short game, however, was near total in the early jousting.
The match suddenly came to life. Zverev broke – and a stumble by Federer sent shivers of anxiety through the crowd. He recovered soon enough; he has taken every precaution in recovering from knee surgery over six months, but there were flashbacks there of his fall in the semi-final against Milos Raonic in the semi-final at Wimbledon last year.
Then the rarest of sights at 1-3 down: Roger the Ruthless. Having dropped serve, he got to break point in the fifth game and slammed a merciless backhand straight at Zverev, who could do no more than block it out of the court.
They were playing at a hectic pace, Zverev 4-3 on serve up in the second in almost the same time as Federer had won the first set. But the German was starting to take more points off the Federer serve now, and there was at last a suggestion of uncertainty about the exchanges. The Swiss scotched that notion with beautifully controlled attack and broke to take the set just on the hour.
An inspired lob for deuce in the fifth game left Zverev stranded after an excellent close-quarter exchange, and a glorious backhand down the line sealed the break.
The closing stages of the match were hard-fought but there was an inevitability about the result when Federer began flashing his shots either side of his desperate opponent.