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He had advanced to at least the penultimate round the last eleven times he had appeared at the Australian Open. He had encouraged his large legion of worldwide boosters by winning the tournament in Brisbane a few weeks ago. He had seemed entirely confident about himself and his chances as he moved into the third round of the season’s first major, despite dropping a set in his previous encounter against Simone Bolelli. All in all, world No. 2 and 17 time major champion Roger Federer had every reason to like his chances of moving inexorably toward the latter rounds of another Grand Slam championship, and perhaps claiming the crown “Down Under” in Melbourne.

But the 33-year-old Swiss Maestro could never have envisioned that he would be so far away from the top of his game as he confronted a resolute Andreas Seppi. In ten previous collisions with the 30-year-old Italian, Federer had conceded a grand total of one set. Seppi is a consummate professional. From 2005 through 2014, he concluded every year among the top 75 in his sport, and that is an irrefutable reflection of his enduring consistency and reliably high level of play. Seppi has finished seven seasons among the top 50 on the Emirates ATP computer rankings, and he reached a career high of No. 18 two years ago.

Unmistakably, Seppi is a first rate tennis player, a man who operates with sharp efficiency from the backcourt, a sturdy competitor who knows not only his strengths but also recognizes his limitations. He has earned the deep admiration of his peers for a good long while because he shows up for every battle ready to give it everything he has, and prepared to make his adversaries work inordinately hard to beat him. To be sure, Seppi is a credit to his profession because he so seldom beats himself. But the fact remains that he has never been much of a force at the majors; in 39 previous Grand Slam tournaments, Seppi had only thrice been as far as the fourth round. The closest he had ever come to recording a major upset in a “Big Four” event was when he built a two sets to love lead against Novak Djokovic at the 2012 French Open, but on a windswept afternoon in Paris he missed out on that opportunity as the Serbian fought back mightily to win in five sets.

I have no doubt that Federer did not take his assignment with Seppi for granted, but he knew full well how comfortable he had always been competing against the Italian. Seppi is a pure and persistent ball striker, hitting almost every shot right out of the teaching manuals, rarely trying anything flamboyant because he is a master of percentage tactics. In the past, Federer always seemed to love the rhythm provided for him by Seppi. It allowed the Swiss to find his range rather easily, to settle into rallies comfortably, to exploit his own versatility and court craft ceaselessly. That is why he had conceded only one set over the years to Seppi, and that is how he has owned this particular opponent for so long. Seppi could hang around with Federer for a while during their contests, but ultimately Federer would elevate his game almost automatically and seize control of his surroundings.

That was plainly not the case this time around. It was apparent from early on that Federer’s footwork was not up to his usual standards. His timing from the baseline was sorely off. His serve in the first two sets was not as explosive, deceptive or accurate as usual. He was out of sorts for whatever the reasons; it was just about as simple as that. Sensing that his iconic rival was not performing with customary verve or almost casual elegance, Seppi responded magnificently and played the best big match of his career. In the tight corners of this gripping contest, Seppi was not found wanting.

This third round appointment commenced with both men holding serve through the first eight games. Suddenly, Federer lost his authority at an inopportune time. A cluster of flagrant and uncharacteristic mistakes from the Swiss led to a service break against him in the ninth game of the match. He virtually handed that game to his opponent on a gold platter, allowing the Italian to serve for the set at 5-4. Federer was clearly not in sync off the ground, but he was attacking well at the right times. He made it to 15-40 in the crucial tenth game. On that first break point, Federer had a look at a second serve, but blinked. He netted a forehand return, and then completely bungled an inside out forehand, miss-hitting that shot badly. He garnered a third break point opportunity, but Seppi saved it with a deep crosscourt forehand that was too much for Federer to handle.

Federer’s forehand was malfunctioning with regularity, and he miss-hit another one off that side to give Seppi a set point. Seppi cashed in on that chance immediately, sending a flat first serve wide to the Federer backhand to elicit a return error. Seppi’s success on his first serve all through the match was one of the keys to the outcome. He won more than his share of free points with the depth, placement and speed of his delivery, and surely that was particularly disconcerting to an unsettled Federer. The Swiss dropped the opening set 6-4, and his game was in disarray.

In the early stages of the second set, Seppi maintained his baseline mastery of Federer, breaking the Swiss for a 2-1 lead at 30 with a nifty display off the ground. A backhand down the line from the Italian opened up an avenue for an inside out approach off the forehand. Federer went crosscourt with his passing shot but Seppi crisply punched a backhand volley down the line for a winner. Federer broke back for 2-2, rolling a topspin backhand deep down the middle to draw an error from Seppi. They went to 4-4, and once more Seppi made his move. Federer served a double fault for 30-30, then aced Seppi for 40-30. But Seppi’s depth of shot was apparent again. A crosscourt forehand from the Italian coaxed Federer into a forehand mistake on the stretch. Federer earned a second game point, but Seppi erased it emphatically with a winning forehand crosscourt.

This game was a primary concern for both players. Seppi advanced to break point but Federer rallied for deuce with a service winner down the T. Seppi’s superb forehand crosscourt induced another error from Federer, and now the Italian stood at break point. Federer’s inside out forehand approach seemed too good, and Seppi could only slice his backhand down the line at a high trajectory. Federer had the line covered and should have gone ahead and put away the forehand volley, but he thought Seppi’s shot was going wide. Federer let it go. The ball landed right smack on the sideline. The break was there for Seppi, who led 5-4, and was serving for a two sets to love lead.

At 5-4, 30-30, Seppi tamely netted a forehand to fall behind break point. He seemed certain to make it back to deuce when Federer rolled a forehand with his weight going backwards. But that shot clipped the net cord and fell over for a very fortunate winner. Federer held up his hands in acknowledgment. But, good luck or not, Federer had broken back for 5-5. They proceeded to a tie-break, which Federer realized he could not afford to lose. Here was Federer, victorious in 27 of 42 tie-breaks he played in 2014. There was Seppi, a fellow who had lost 12 of his 22 tie-breaks last year. Federer was poised to alter the complexion of this tennis match substantially, to fight his way back to one set all, to seize the initiative when it really mattered.

He very nearly did just that. Federer secured the mini-break to lead 2-1 in the tie-break, driving a flat forehand return crosscourt, rushing Seppi into an errant shot. Federer bolted to 3-1, stepping into Seppi’s relatively deep return and driving a topspin backhand down the line majestically for a winner. Federer moved to 4-1 with an unstoppable first serve to the backhand. The No. 2 seed was rolling now, and Seppi seemed just about powerless to do anything about that. But the Italian refused to walk away from a considerable challenge. He served wide to the Federer backhand, got the weak return he wanted, and came forward to dispatch a forehand drive volley into the clear. Seppi then served wide to the Federer forehand to draw another mistake.

The burden of pressure was back on Federer, who served at 4-3. He swiftly moved to 5-3, two points away from levelling at one set all. Federer served down the T to the Seppi backhand, but the return came back quickly and low with decent depth. Federer erred off the forehand. He had hoped to be ahead 6-3 with three set points at his disposal, but an unwavering Seppi was back on serve at 4-5. Seppi took charge unhesitatingly, approaching on the Federer backhand and punching a forehand volley commandingly crosscourt for an outright winner. It was 5-5. Now Federer went on the attack, but his backhand down the volley lacked penetration. Seppi had all the time he needed, connecting impeccably for a forehand passing shot winner crosscourt.

Federer was in a serious bind, serving at 5-6, one point away from falling behind two sets to love. He got his first serve in, and approached the net off a short return. But Seppi sent a flat backhand down the line and kept it low. Federer tried a forehand volley down the line but it was an arduous shot. The volley went wide. Seppi had taken five of the last six points from 1-4 down to win the tie-break 7-5, and yet Federer had not played badly. He had only missed one first serve in the entire tie-break. He made only one unforced error, and even that was borderline. Seppi simply raised his game on the biggest points, and he had a two sets to love lead.

Almost inevitably, Seppi let his guard down slightly and Federer elevated his game decidedly in the third set. Federer broke Seppi in the third game for a 2-1 lead and never looked back. In five service games during that set, Federer lost only four points, holding at love in the tenth game with growing assurance. Federer had his teeth in the match, and Seppi’s lead was much more tenuous at two sets to one. The opening game of the fourth set was critical. Federer had a break point that might well have carried him through the set, and could conceivably have led him on toward the tenth comeback triumph of his career from two sets to love down. But Seppi wisely tried to pepper the Federer backhand. The Swiss would eventually attempt a topspin backhand down the line, but did not fully commit to the shot, driving it long with no conviction.

Seppi fought his way out of that awkward corner, and held on tenaciously for 1-0 as the Federer forehand went wayward again. The tension was mounting and the audience was acutely aware that Federer was serving from behind and absolutely determined to succeed. But Seppi was ceding no ground, giving little away, and holding his nerve. Federer, meanwhile, was talking to himself frequently, shouting “Come On!” so often that it had an air of desperation, hoping to rouse himself however he could. Both men kept holding as the score was locked at 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, and 4-4. At 4-5, Federer had the unenviable task of serving to stay in the match. He held on admirably at love with his 14th ace of the afternoon. Seppi served at 5-5, and at last he revealed vestiges of frailty as he gallantly sought to close out the match.

Federer took Seppi to deuce in the eleventh game, but Seppi was unswerving. He sent a first serve wide to the Federer forehand in the deuce court, and Federer’s return came back crosscourt. Steppi stepped in boldly and drove a flat forehand down the line for a winner. He then aced Federer down the T to move in front 6-5. Serving to save the match for the second time, Federer was much tighter than he had been two games earlier. He double faulted wide for 15-30. Seppi took a chance on the next point, going for the gusto with a backhand down the line. The shot was not in the cards, and it landed wide. Federer got to 40-30 but lost a 23 stroke rally when his inside in forehand travelled long. Federer gave himself a second game point by capturing a 19 shot exchange, courageously pulling off a scintillating inside out forehand winner.

And yet, Federer was not out of the woods. He netted a forehand off a fine return from Seppi, but then produced a magnificent body serve that stifled Seppi. On his third game point, Federer released his 15th ace of the day, going supremely down the T. Four times in that game, Federer had drifted within two points of defeat, but he had escaped with typical perspicacity and fearlessness. In the ensuing tie-break, Federer established a 3-1 mini-break lead with patience and variety, using the soft sliced backhand to induce an error from Seppi. Federer wanted to press his advantage, and he chip-charged off a second serve backhand return. Seppi did not panic. He recognized that the approach lacked depth and bite, and the Italian passed his adversary cleanly crosscourt for a timely winner.

Serving at 3-2, Federer double faulted for the ninth time in the match, but moved to 4-3 with an immaculate slice serve out wide that was unanswerable. Seppi was imperturbable. He aced Federer out wide in the ad court for 4-4. And yet, Federer then celebrated one of his magical moments that probably should have destroyed Seppi’s morale. Seppi approached with a backhand slice, going deep down the middle to the Federer backhand. Federer should have been hard pressed to respond, but that was not the case. He angled a backhand crosscourt passing shot audaciously into an open space, and back he was with a mini-break lead, serving at 5-4, conceivably two swings away from a fifth set.

But Federer soon went from one extreme to another. With Seppi once more directing nearly all of his groundstroke traffic to the Federer backhand, the Swiss sent a crosscourt shot wide off that side, miss-hitting that ball at a crucial moment. It was 5-5. Federer played the next point too cautiously, and Seppi took matters into his own hands, making a superb inside out forehand winner to move to match point on his own serve. He tried surprising Federer by going down the T, but the Swiss anticipated that serve, and directed a first rate forehand return low to the Seppi backhand. The Italian sliced his shot back low crosscourt, but Federer was rapidly on top of it. He went inside in with a forehand approach, and seemed certain to win that point. But Seppi closed the account in the most stylish way possible, curling his forehand passing shot down the line for a highly improbable winner.

Seppi eclipsed Federer 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (5). Most remarkably, he clearly outplayed Federer in the clutch, winning both tie-breaks decidedly against the odds. Federer won 145 points while Seppi took 144, but it was Seppi who handled the pressure better than his renowned adversary. Federer made 55 unforced errors during this suspenseful clash, 15 more than the Italian. Meanwhile, although Federer connected for 57 winners, Seppi had 50, and that was impressive. Federer succeeded on only three of ten break points while Seppi made good on three of his five opportunities. The Swiss went to the net no fewer than 50 times, winning 29 of those points. His touch and agility in the forecourt was top of the line, but he lost this match for two reasons: Seppi was superior in the tie-breaks, and Federer had a disappointing day from the baseline.

Federer, of course, has been a stupendously consistent big occasion player who reached 23 consecutive semifinals (or better) at the majors between 2004 and 2010, and got to 36 straight quarterfinals (or beyond) in the span of 2004-2013. Now he has lost in the fourth round or earlier in four of his last seven majors, but two of those early round setbacks took place during the 2013 campaign when he was seldom at his best. The loss to Seppi is, however, not insignificant. Federer was primed for this tournament after an excellent second half of 2014. Altogether in 2014, he secured five singles titles on the ATP World Tour. But his primary goal now must be to win another major title. Since winning his fourth and last Australian Open in 2010, the Swiss has played in 20 Grand Slam events, but has taken only one major (Wimbledon in 2012) during that long span.

Although Federer is in phenomenal shape for a man approaching his 34th birthday in August, the fact remains that the passage of time has taken its toll in some ways. He remains formidable in every way, capable on some days of performing almost as prodigiously as he did in his heyday. But he has other days when he is not in full possession of his powers, when his game deteriorates significantly, when his mind becomes clouded. This happens to all great champions as they grow older. And yet, Federer keeps striving for the highest ideals, and his heart is much younger than his years. He will come roaring back from this loss as he has done so many times during his illustrious career. His enduring commitment to excellence is astonishing. Be that as it may, winning another Grand Slam championship is not necessarily beyond his reach, but that task will be a tall one even for this uniquely gifted individual.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.

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