In the intense heat of the first week of this Australian Open, Melbourne Park was all illusions, delusions and hallucinations. The second week has been milder by far, but still we are seeing things. Within 24 hours, defending champions Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka disappeared before our disbelieving eyes, and Rafael Nadal was forced to use all his wiles to stave off Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov, the man they call the next Roger Federer.
Then there was the original Federer, and unless our eyes deceived us again - this is the greatest mind trick of all - he was playing for the most part like the vintage Federer. He beat Andy Murray 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3 to advance to a semi-final against Nadal. Except for a peculiar coyness when playing break points - he held 17 and won three - this would have been more convincing still. As it was, Federer had two points to win in straight sets. Of the evaporative break points he said: "I'm kinda used to it. You just stay positive and try to win another chance."
Doubtless, it helped that Murray is still undergoing rehabilitation from back surgery just four months ago, and even by his standards was pessimistic about this encounter. Doubtless, it will help when Federer plays Nadal on Friday night that Nadal is playing with a left hand so puffed up with blisters he can barely grip the racquet to serve. Doubtless, it will help that he then would play a nervous newbie in the final ...
We digress too far into the future. Prospectively, this fourth quarter-final would be a classic. Circumstances increased the intrigue. Centre court had become a blue hole: five of the previous six matches there had been won by the lower ranked player, sometimes much lower, and in the preceding match, Nadal admitted that he had needed luck to prevail over Dimitrov. In the wash-up, the women's draw had become a lottery and the men's draw turned into two distinct competitions, virtually a wildcard play-off for a place in the final on one side, and, on the other, a series of matches worthy of finals before the final proper. Tuesday night was the first.
For most of this night, Federer was, as in his invincible days, commanding the court and his opponent, pulling and pushing Murray about like a marionette, while at his end he sauntered from place to place as if all was as inevitable as he made it look. Murray is one of the few players with a winning record against Federer, and this night entered a match against him for the first time with a higher ranking. But - for now anyway - the old order was restored.
Federer was almost faultless on his own serve, anticipated Murray's, outduelled him from the back of the court and lorded it over him at the net, the new domain he is exploring under the tutelage of Stefan Edberg, himself a compulsive serve-volleyer. By setting up an advance base there, Federer forced Murray to go for more clean winners than is his wont. Murray was good enough to make his share, which kept the scores artificially close. The night flowed Federer's way so much, that it came to its final pass when Federer reached a ball, on what looked like might have been its second bounce, and turned into a winning lob.
If all this appeared too much deja vu to be true, slightly, it was. Federer had not lost a set in the tournament, nor even a service game since the second round, until he had the match on his racquet this night. Two match points went a-begging. Murray pinched the set, and held serve against six break points in one nerve-wracking 19-minute game at the start of the fourth, and the match suddenly became a cussed affair. "I'm still in the lead," Federer told himself, for fortification. His serve remained impregnable - he faced only three break points - and at length he made good one of his own. Seemingly, the spent force is gathering again.
A wry little gag had run through the course of the preceding 24 hours. Nobody beats Stan Wawrinka 15 times in a row, the other Swiss had said, after putting one over Novak Djokovic at last. Nobody beats Agnieszka Radwanska seven times in a row, said her coach after she had put a spectacular end to her run of losses to Victoria Azarenka. Last year, Federer lost all seven matches he played against the other three in the big four. No cohort of players, he appeared to be saying on Wednesday night, beats Roger Federer eight times in a row.
This story Federer sets up semi against Nadal first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.