MELBOURNE, Australia — Five players seeded in the top 10 had been knocked out of the Australian Open across the men’s and women’s draws on Friday, and Roger Federer appeared ready to join their exodus.
On the same court where Serena Williams and the reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka had suffered stunning defeats just hours earlier, Federer trailed by 8-4 in a first-to-10 tiebreaker at the end of the fifth set against John Millman of Australia. Federer was two points from defeat in a bruising match that had stretched past four hours, then suddenly rallied, reeling off six straight points to snatch a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (10-8) victory to reach the fourth round.
“Oh God, it was tough,” Federer said in his on-court interview. “Thank God it was a super tiebreaker, otherwise I would have lost this one. John played a great match — he might as well have been out here as well doing the interview.”
Federer was helped by the final-set tiebreaker going to 10 points, a format this tournament adopted last year, instead of ending at 7 like the match-ending tiebreakers used at the United States Open and at Wimbledon.
By winning, Federer avoided a repeat of a previous surprise. Millman had beaten Federer in the fourth round of the 2018 U.S. Open, a four-set slog in humid conditions that left the normally unflappable Federer dripping with perspiration.
Conditions were cool and temperate on Friday evening — though Millman still sweated through a pair of shoes — but Federer, 38, again struggled to match the physicality of an opponent eight years his junior.
Millman earned an early advantage in the final set by breaking Federer’s serve in the third game, but Federer immediately won the next game on Millman’s serve to tie things up. The two continued on serve from there.
Millman won on Federer’s serve in the first point of the extended tiebreaker, which he then expanded to an 8-4 lead with the second of two whipping forehand passing shots.
“He kept on coming up with the goods,” the third-seeded Federer said of Millman. “I thought ‘O.K., I guess I tried, I didn’t play too bad after all’ — I was getting ready to explain myself in the press conference.”
But Federer obviated the need for any explanations from that point on. He dug in and won all the remaining rallies, including two that stretched to 12 and 17 shots.
“You always feel, as long as it’s not match point, you’re still kind of in it,” Federer said. “But the air gets so incredibly thin. And you know that any overhitting, too much risk, or just handing over a point at this moment will cost you dearly. It’s a very, very tight balance you have to choose there.”
Despite losing the lead late, Millman said he “left everything out there” and had no regrets about his play as the match slipped away.
“It’s not as if it was double faults or first-ball errors; I went after it,” Millman said.
After struggling with the shot all night — hitting 48 unforced errors — Federer finished the match swinging out on his first match point with his 21st forehand winner, leaving Millman to pick up his sweaty shoes and somberly carry them off the court.
“He pushed me to go for more,” Federer said of Millman’s stubborn defense. “You know me: I’m not going to hold back and just rally all the time. I will always try to make plays, and for that I will miss some.”
Federer said that the exhilarating victory reminded him of why he still competed in the sport year after year.
“All of a sudden you turn the whole thing around within, like, two minutes and it’s so worthwhile, everything that I have gone through,” he said. “I think if I do play tennis it’s because of winning titles, trying to win as many matches as possible, to enjoy myself out on court — but also being in epic matches like this.
“Doesn’t always have to be finals, I guess,” he said. “As long as the crowds are into it, you have a great battle with an opponent who you really admire and respect, it’s a good feeling. I’m happy I had that match tonight. I hope I would feel the same way also if I would have lost, to be honest.”
In addition to the third-seeded Naomi Osaka and the eighth-seeded Williams, the other top-10 players who lost on Friday were No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 9 Roberto Bautista Agut, and No. 10 Madison Keys.