Melbourne, Australia — It took just over an hour for Roger Federer to fix one anomalous statistic in his extraordinary career.
Defending champion Federer, who was leading Hyeon Chung 6-1, 5-2 when the Korean retired in the second set of their Australian Open semifinal on Friday night, is within one win of a 20th Grand Slam singles title.
Going into the match against Chung, Federer had a below-par semifinals record at Melbourne Park, only six wins out of 13.
After 1 hour and 2 minutes under the closed roof on Rod Laver Arena, he’s on par, 7-7 (but still well below his marks at the other majors: 11-1 at Wimbledon, 7-3 at the U.S. Open, and 5-2 at Roland Garros.
It wasn’t how Federer expected to advance.
“You do take the faster matches whenever you can because there’s enough wear and tear on the body,” he said. “The thought process is not like ‘What would have been better?’
“That’s why this one feels bittersweet. I’m incredibly happy to be in the finals, but not like this.”
Chung tried everything to disguise the pain of the raw patches on his left foot which, his agent explained, were “blisters under blisters under blisters.”
Federer knows the feeling. He also sensed something wrong with Chung’s movement.
“I’ve played with blisters in the past a lot, and it hurts a lot. And at one point, it’s just too much and you can’t take it anymore — you can’t go on,” he said. “He’s played such a wonderful tournament, so credit to him for playing so hard again today.”
Federer’s conversion rate for finals in Australia is much better — the only time he lost a championship match was in 2009 against Rafael Nadal.
So he’s well poised for Sunday’s match against No. 6-seeded Marin Cilic. Cilic has had an extra day of rest but Federer was hardly taxed on Friday night, and occupied for only an hour.
The final will be Federer’s record seventh at the Australian Open and 30th at a Grand Slam.
Cilic was hampered by blisters when he lost to Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final, but he has made a relatively pain-free run through the other half of the draw, including a quarterfinal win over an injured Nadal.
Even if Chung had been fit, he was trying to reach his first ATP final against a player who has won 95 titles, 19 of them Grand Slams.
Chung had an incredible run at Melbourne Park, becoming the first Korean to reach a semifinal at a tennis major and attracting plenty of attention for beating No. 4-seeded Alexander Zverev in the third round and six-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic in the fourth.
But it took a toll. He needed a pain-killing injection before the match, and a medical timeout to re-tape his left foot after going down a break in the second set. He played only two more games before he quit.
“I did right thing. If I play bad on the court, it’s not good for the fans and audience as well,” he said. “I really hurt. I can’t walk no more.”
The 36-year-old Federer predicted a bright future for Chung, 15 years younger. Chung also believed the experience will prepare him better for the rigors of best-of-five-set tennis at Grand Slams.
“For sure. I play really good in (the) last two weeks. I make first round 16, quarters and semis — I play (Zverev), Novak, Roger,” he said. “I can play better and better in the future.”
With victory, Federer ensured one of the so-called Big Four – with Nadal, Djokovic, Andy Murray — has featured in the final since 2005. Stan Wawrinka’s win over Nadal in 2014 was the only final since 2008 that didn’t feature two of the Big Four.
Top-ranked Nadal lost to Cilic in the quarterfinals, Djokovic fell to Chung, and Murray, a five-time Australian Open runner-up, withdrew to have surgery on his hip, leaving their collective reputation for dominance in Australia on Federer.
He didn’t let anyone down in a clinical dismantling of the No. 58-ranked Chung, who won the Next Gen ATP Finals in November.
Earlier, Timea Babos of Hungary and Kristina Mladenovic of France became the first players from their respective countries to lift the Australian Open women’s doubles crown.
Babos and Mladenovic combined to beat the Russian pair of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 6-4, 6-3.