Mercury is a very smooth element—gleaming silver and round when positioned still on a tabletop, like an old-fashioned doorknob.
Coming into the Australian Open final in 2005, Roger Federer was smooth. Possessor of the most complete game in the sport, the deceptive forehand, and the greatest amount of topspin in the game, Roger had won every Slam but the French, where he fell to clay-court specialist Gustavo Kuerten in straight sets.
Otherwise, Roger owned the field. 2004 was one of his signature years, with lopsided wins over Marat Safin at the Aussie Open, Roddick at Wimbledon, and Lleyton Hewitt at the US Open. He would lose only six times that year (one of them to Kuerten at the French and another in Miami to a 17-year- old Spaniard from Mallorca).
Starting the 2005 tennis year, would it be the same steam-roll? Or would Roger and Safin create one of the greatest matches is Aussie Open history?
Mercurial was the word most often used to describe Marat Safin. Power was another word associated with Safin (more so than with Roger in those days). In 2000, he'd rocked Pete Sampras at the USO and out-powered him with the forehand, to win his first major 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Safin ranked somewhere in the top five in all aspects of the game, but his temperament was often erratic.
In 2005, the AO was played on the emerald green Rebound Ace, a springy surface that was slightly slower, favoring players who hit hard and big. It was perfect for both Safin's and Federer's games.
The microphones clearly picked up Roger saying, "F*&^," in the first set after he failed to convert a break point.
Shortly thereafter, a sight rarely seen: Roger stretched way out past the doubles alley to retrieve a ball but returned it short so that Marat, well inside the ad court, delivered on the next stroke, the winning volley.
Smooth forward movement by Marat kept Roger off balance and consistently out of position. It was the jewelry around his neck that was pulling Marat forward toward the net, the commentators joked.
But the next break opportunity for Roger was a set point, and Marat threw his racket high into the air and caught it again like a baton twirler when he lost his serve.
No meltdown though, as Marat broke Roger at his first opportunity in the next set as if to declare the first set only an opening round in a dogfight.
Marat was successful at keeping the points short, and with good volleying, the set progressed quickly. Roger defended with lobs, and the slice crosscourt backhand, trying to force Marat back to the baseline, with limited success. Kept out of his rhythm, Roger overplayed his forehands trying to get back into the set.
To start the third set, the spraying of forehands continued, but Roger seemed to steady himself, and it was Marat who got tight, particularly on the backhand side.
With Marat's tightness, Roger's "calm" demeanor increased, and so did the poise with which he positioned himself and readied for winners. The splaying of forehands ceased, and Roger started making spectacular volleys that exploited corners or winners with top-spin that kept Marat out of position. Smooth.
The fans were then treated to loud, incomprehensible, on-court muttering in Russian. Then the first of two racket smashes to the Rebound Ace surface (this time not broken).
The brilliant shot-making from Roger continued. One lunging volley (closely resembling a ballet dancer executing a Grand Jete) expertly changed its direction for an angled winner.
Marat responded with an extended rally, in a matter of several strokes, like an American football team on the line of scrimmage, pushed Roger from inside the ad court to well behind the baseline, before he broke Roger with a crosscourt winner out of Roger's reach.
Roger likewise responded with gigantic forehand winners of his own (165 kph!).
But Marat refused to be cowed, pressing every opportunity to smash Roger's second serve. Eventually Roger became tentative with anxiety over his serving, and the two played this way, mano-a-mano, each trying to turn that doorknob on the other, 'til Roger broke Marat in the last game to win the third set. (The second racket smash came at that critical point with Marat trying to erase set point and losing his poise.)
Now Roger tried to slam the door firmly against Marat, and close off the win, but the previous set seemed to take a lot out of him. One point saw Roger move to net with footwork that resembled a balletic Assemble, executed while reaching for the ball at his feet. Only he tripped over his feet on that one—not so smooth!.
Another 19-shot rally finished with Roger sitting in one of those linesman's chair at the back of the court sucking wind. (I've never seen Roger do that before or since). Another point saw Roger execute a 360 degree Pirouette inside the ad court, only to hit the ball into the net.
Both men played a comprehensive variety of brilliant tennis in this set: exploiting angles, backhand volleys, slice, slice, slice. More Russian phrases. Quite a few "yes!' from Roger, as well as "Aaack!" (or was it "Nyyyyet"?) But Roger was the one who was tentative, and a little passive, when at the three hour mark, the match entered the fourth set tiebreak.
Seemed like a good time to pull out the aces—sort of Russian Roulette style, with the Russian losing the ace contest. And one of those quintessential Federer shots, a slice, bending short ball that bounced once then changed direction and bent out perpendicular to the direction it was going in. Classic! No chance. Match Point, Federer.
Then ensued a suite of some of the most remarkable points in tennis, played by one of the most mercurial men in tennis. Power forehands. Pirouettes from Roger. Rushing the net. A desperate failed attempt at a "tweener" (Roger got it right in the 2009 semi-final against Novak Djokovic— the best point he ever played in his career, he said—he got it wrong in the fourth set tiebreak against Marat Safin in the 2005 AO semifinal).
The deciding set commenced with more incomprehensible Russian phrases and hand waving (no racket throwing though!), though Marat was the smoother of the two. As with the start of the fourth set, the start of the fifth set saw Roger seemingly lose all his balletic grace and smooth footwork.
Ground-stroke rallies, with fantastic pace, at 30 shots apiece ensued. Safin was Nadal-like in generating pace off of Roger's slice, but un-Nadal-like in his retrievals (often from outside the doubles alley), and Roger won most of these rallies.
So Marat went back to attacking the second serve, volleying, and keeping the points short.
Roger, about a half-step slow compared to Marat, looking down and out, resorted to lobs (one as he neared match point, yet another quintessential, classic Roger lob that drew Marat's appreciative applause), but after being broken, faced match point down against Marat.
More fantastic tennis as Roger fought off two match points. Then two more. Then Roger broke back! (No racket slamming by Marat, but he did march forward to emphatically squash a moth, with a loud crunch, that was trapped on the Rebound Ace). It looked to be one of Roger's greatest comebacks.
But neither player could cleanly slam the door on the other. The two men began serving into each other's body. At other times the rapid-fire points at net resembled those of a ping-pong match.
The commentators noted that the only thing not being used in the match was the back of each other's chair.
The door started to slam shut against Marat at games 13-14 of the fifth set, as he launched a couple of lobs that didn't work and nervously missing some forehands. But when match point(s) came, Marat was able to find his range and fight them off. A critical double fault from Roger helped out.
Roger's body language suggested fatigue. He slumped between points and fell to his knees at one point. When Marat began opening up the court and hitting clean winners, it was all over for Roger. He'd saved five match points (and generated an equal number of his own against Marat) but wasn't able to hold off the sixth.
Mercury gleams silver and round. Sort of like the curve of the AO's trophy. Marat would go on to win that trophy, his second and last Grand Slam victory.
Final score: (5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7)
This article is part of a series on the Pillars of Roger Federer's Career, as well as part of our Rewind series, looking back on outstanding Aussie Open matches.
For more 2010 'Rewind' see:
'00: Pete and Andre and the Titanic Tiebreak
For more of the Pillars of Roger's Career see (many of these still to come):
- Federer/Hewitt vs Rafter/Bjorkman – 1999 Wimbledon 17-year old Roger!
- Rafter vs Federer – 2001 Halle
- Roger vs Pete – 2001 Wimbledon The future was Federer
- Agassi vs Federer – 2002 Miami Harbinger of things to Come
- Kuerten vs Federer – 2003 Indian Wells
- Hewitt vs Federer Davis Cup – 2003
- Kuerten vs Federer FO - 2004 Getting smashed in Paris
- Federer vs Agassi – 2004 USO
- Federer vs Roddick 2004 WTF Federer saves 3 match points.
- Federer vs Safin – 2004 WTF. Perhaps some of Roger’s best tennis.
- Safin vs Federer – AO 2005. A balletic master vs an American football team's front line
- Roger Federer vs Juan Carlos Ferrero – Dubai 2005
- Roger vs Rafa – Miami 2005
- Federer vs Santoro – New York 2005.
- Rafa vs. Roger – Rome 2006
- Roger vs Rafa – Wimbledon 2007
- Roger Federer vs Andy Roddick: New York 2007
- Roger Federer vs Janko Tipsarevic: Melbourne 2008 Roger pushed to the limit!
- Roger Federer vs Murray - 2008 USO A beacon in a year of troubles
- Murray vs Federer 2008 WTF Federer shows fortitude, though he lost.
- Federer vs Del Potro - AO 2009 Roger demolishes Del Potro
- Federer vs Roddick – Wimbledon 2009 Roger's Historic 15th title vs resilient Roddick