WASHINGTON, January 27, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
On Friday night inside a packed Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open, tennis fans in a good mood celebrating Australia Day settled in for the second men’s singles semifinal between defending champion Roger Federer and the young, 21-year-old Korean upstart Hyeon Chung. However, just 62 minutes into the match, and with Federer dominating and comfortably ahead 6-1, 5-2, the world came crashing down on Chung when his body failed him at a most inopportune time. His wonderful Australian Open fortnight, in which he knocked out his idol, six-time AO champion Novak Djokovic, plus two other seeded players, ended abruptly. Some might call it an anti-climatic finish, but the outcome left many fans booing.
Moments after Chung stunningly pulled out of his first Grand Slam semifinal match because of blisters on both of his feet, it ensured that the 36-year-old Federer, who has overcome more than his share of mental and physical barriers during his illustrious career, would reach a 30th Grand Slam singles final. Now, as he plays in his seventh Australian Open final, the No. 2-seeded Swiss maestro is within one win of his 20th Grand Slam singles title. He will face No. 6 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia, the winner of one Grand Slam title – exactly 18 fewer than Federer – in the final on Sunday night.
“I’ve played with blisters in the past … and it hurts a lot,” said Federer in an interview on court shortly after his match ended. “At some point, you can’t go on. … I’m happy to reach the finals, but not like this.”
Later, Federer expanded his thoughts on facing the overwhelmed Chung. “For me, I was trying to block that away and just play Chung himself,” he said. “If he had no issues, well, that’s normal. If he has issues, well bad luck for him, and I’ll take advantage of it.”
In an interview with New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey, Chung’s coach Neville Godwin said his pupil’s blister problem was a new one and that he was “biting into a towel” as took pain-killing injections in both feet 45 minutes before the start of the match. “We just basically ran out of time,” said Godwin. “He’s young and he had a great run, and it’s a very unfortunate time for it to happen, but he managed it the best that he could actually. He had three doctors, a podiatrist and five trainers running around after him the, sort of, last 10 days.”
Hall of Famer John McEnroe, who analyzed the Federer-Chung match for ESPN, praised Chung, who last November won the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan. “I think Chung’s going to win some major titles in his career,” said McEnroe “I don’t think he’s ready to do that yet. He’s still a work in progress.”
Tennis Channel commentator Mary Carillo, who called the semifinal that was broadcast back to the United States, alongside Federer’s former coach Paul Annacone, was interviewed at length later Friday night for The Tennis Podcast by David Law of BBC 5 Live and Catherine Whitaker of Eurosport. “We knew early in the morning (Chung) was being treated for blisters,” said Carillo. “Clearly he was unable to move. It’s a great pity he couldn’t continue because Roger was floating out there. I hate those who are playing in distress. I don’t blame the kid for having to quit.”
Chung, whose world ranking will climb from No. 58 to No. 29 – the highest singles ranking ever for a Korean player – addressed his condition head-on during his post-match press conference. “I think I did the right thing. It really hurts. I can’t walk normal,” he said.
While Carillo was sympathetic toward Chung, she praised Federer for how he handled himself on court in the moments after the match ended prematurely and in his interview with Jim Courier. “Roger has such a good sense of the moment,” said Carillo. “During the post-match interview, the first thing he did was assuage the anger of the fans. Roger is so generous and able to react. I thought what he did was important.”
Former Australian Open champion and Hall of Famer Boris Becker, now a Eurosport broadcaster who witnessed the Federer-Chung match, said he’s amazed by how well Federer continues to perform despite his age. Interviewed by The Tennis Podcast, Becker said, “I don’t think that 18 months ago that Roger thought he would be back in the winner’s circle on a regular basis in Grand Slams.
“He has persevered and improved, changed tactics a little bit by playing more offensive, and with his very soft footwork I wonder how he’s survived?” asked Becker. “He’s thirty-six and in great shape for someone who has played over a thousand matches. He must be doing something right.”
Now, it’s on to Sunday’s final for Federer, who beat Cilic in three quick sets during last summer’s Wimbledon final in their ninth career meeting. One lasting memory for me of that match was of Cilic, who also played through foot blisters. It’s hard to forget the look on Cilic’s face during a changeover as he broke drying crying, frustrated that he was unable to play his best. Against Federer, Cilic is just 1-8 in their career head-to-head, but his only win was a memorable one coming in the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals en route to achieving his lone Grand Slam championship.
Federer comes into the final without having dropped a set in his six matches. He’s played 18 sets and won all of them. Meanwhile, Cilic, who will move up in the world rankings to No. 3 next week, advanced with a 6-2, 7-6 (4), 6-2 semifinal win over the surprising No. 49th-ranked Kyle Edmund of Great Britain on Thursday, two days after No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal retired two games into the fifth set of their quarterfinal match. It will be Cilic’s third major final.
“Having more attention or not, I don’t mind,” Cilic told Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times, following his semifinal win. “I’m still doing the same things. Still, I have to be focused with my own team to get better every single day, to do the things I need to.”
Although he will be the underdog against Federer, Cilic said he looks forward to the challenge of being in another Grand Slam final. “I’m just understanding myself better, what I’m doing well on the court, and that if I keep doing that, I keep getting better at it,” he said. “Obviously we’re all unique players, having a unique style of play. For me, when I’m playing the great tennis hat I can play, it’s on a high level. I can compete with the best guys in the world.”
Both Becker and Carillo were asked by their Tennis Podcast hosts to predict a winner between Federer and Cilic. Asked if Cilic can win, Becker said, “He certainly has the game for it. He plays a powerful baseline game and has the serve to win. He looked very strong against (Rafael) Nadal – the best I’ve seen him play in a very long time. The question with Cilic is always how is he mentally. How strong is he? How stable is he?”
“Federer-Cilic? I’ll take that match any time,” said Carillo. “I think Roger gets his 20th. I like him in four (sets).”
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.