Andreas Seppi, one of those players who constantly flies below the radar at major tournaments, seemed consigned to a career in which he’d never be able to remember a match on tennis’s biggest stage for all the right reasons.
Seppi took a two-set lead on Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros in 2012, but he couldn’t hold the line. Seppi gave ground as the match went on and fell in five sets to an opponent who has lost to only one man — Rafael Nadal — over the past three years on the red clay of France. Seppi has never made the quarterfinals of a major tournament. He is one of many dozens of players who wear the label “almost.” These players comprise most of the fields you see at regular-tour events.
Though men’s tennis used to be a far more volatile sport in which a lot of everyman players would poke their heads into the semifinals and finals of various majors (that’s called the 1990s, bleeding into the early 2000s), this is still — on balance — a sport in which a relatively small concentration of individuals hold court at the top tier. It is hard to make one’s way deep into a bracket, and since 2004, we’ve seen how consistently the ATP Tour has been controlled by a handful of stars relative to everyone else.
In eras both fragile and strong (for both genders, not just one), the top tier is followed by bunches of players who exist in a cluttered mess, trying to separate themselves and move up the ladder. Andreas Seppi has been part of this bunch. With an 0-10 record against Roger Federer — the man most responsible for turning men’s tennis from a largely unpredictable sport to a top-heavy one in 2004 — Seppi knew he could afford to play with the freedom of a man who had nothing to lose. That much was clear.
What the global tennis community couldn’t have counted on was Seppi’s ability to turn that confidence — which once gave him that two-set lead on Djokovic in a late Parisian spring — into the memory of a lifetime. It’s easy to say that you’ll hit freely. It’s a lot harder to do so when trailing Federer 3-5 in a second-set tiebreaker, and 4-5 in a fourth-set breaker.
Seppi could have faltered in the crucible of pressure that has snared him so many times in the past. He could have failed to carry points to a full conclusion by not hustling as hard as humanly possible. He could have allowed his game to unravel at the worst possible moments. Yet, Seppi held firm under the withering spotlight provided by a major-tournament tiebreaker against a man who had reached 11 straight Australian Open semifinals. Just when Federer appeared to be inching ahead, Seppi reeled him in.
What will always make this day even more heaven-kissed for Seppi is the way in which he closed out sets two and four in a 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (5) victory over Federer, shocking the second seed and giving a wild first week in Australia its latest and greatest jolt.
Late in set two with Federer serving at 4-4, Seppi was pushed far into the ad corner, where — on break point — his defensive slice seemed to hang in the air for an eternity. Federer left it, but the ball teasingly curled toward the court and painted the sideline to give Seppi a chance to serve for a two-set lead. Seppi was broken back for 5-5, but a tone had been set: Whenever a moment of supreme importance would arrive, Seppi realized he could find an arrow in the quiver. Down 3-5 in the second-set tiebreaker, Seppi didn’t flinch. He ran off four straight points to snatch the tiebreaker, 7-5, and grab a two-set lead.
Over an hour later, this pattern of Seppi coming up with the goods in an improbable manner would be reaffirmed.
With Federer desperately — but ineffectively — trying to push his way to a fifth set in which he would have held the advantage, Seppi won two straight points on Federer’s serve after falling behind, 5-4. At 6-5, THIS happened:
— TENNIS.com (@Tennis) January 23, 2015
There was really only one thing to say afterward:
You can spend a lifetime trying to win one set against Federer with a defensive chip floater that somehow falls in. Seppi got 2 in 1 match.
— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) January 23, 2015
It’s reflexively easy to want to say a lot about Federer and what this means for him. When an 11-year semifinal streak at the same major tournament is snapped, that’s big news. After the way Federer played in the second half of 2014 (Wimbledon and beyond), a first-week exit in Melbourne was not what any pundits were expecting… especially not when Seppi beat Jeremy Chardy — a noticeably tricky foe for Fed (who knocked him out of Rome last year) — in the second round.
Does this mean Federer’s 2015 is going to careen out of control the way his 2013 season did? We can’t really say all that much right now, as much as many of us might want to. This is the case chiefly because Federer is not carrying around the back injury that hampered him in the second half of 2013. We’ll certainly want to see where Federer is after Miami, and frankly, Wimbledon offers the truest measuring stick of where the Swiss’s game stands. Perhaps Federer will lose his magic this season, but if you’re going to frame this shocker in such a manner, keep in mind that another player has to summon some magic of his own.
Seppi clearly did.
You can call it luck, but it requires world-class skill to hit the shots the Italian pulled off late in sets two (at 4-all) and set four (on match point). Even if those shots landed half an inch out, anyone who might currently call Seppi’s winning strokes “fortunate” would have instead had to concede that missing by an eyelash was just as unfortunate.
What’s the real lesson to be taken from this match, viewing it on its own terms? You can be victimized by improbable shots or unexpected occurrences on single points, but if you play better and get a 6-3 tiebreaker lead (which Federer could have done at the end of set two) or a 6-4 tiebreaker lead (which Federer could have done at the end of set four), an opponent’s clutch play merely would have tied sets as opposed to winning them.
Federer put himself on the precipice of disaster — as did Seppi’s bold and successful crosscourt forehand, the far superior forehand in Rod Laver Arena on Friday and the most decisive shot in the match. Once on the precipice, though, his opponent found something special. It was that rarest of days when Federer couldn’t wave his wand — presto! — and conjure a win when struggling. Legends become legends precisely because they manage to do just that. On Friday, the roles were reversed, as Andreas Seppi found the kinds of moments he’ll remember as long as he lives.
As said above, it’s easy to want to make this story about Federer. However, Federer had an off-day. That happens. That’s normal.
What was not normal about this afternoon Down Under is that Andreas Seppi had an “ON” day… “on” enough to score his first win over Federer and move within one match win of a first-ever major quarterfinal appearance.
If what felled Federer can be rationalized away with “that happens,” the glorious moment being embraced by Andreas Seppi can’t be looked at in the same way. This is the exact moment which hasn’t happened over the course of a long career, now at age 30.
Friday, what had never happened… happened.
It’s why sports are so magical… even when someone nicknamed “The Maestro” is the one who goes POOF! and vanishes into a summer evening.