“Look, at some point also I was just happy that the match was over, I guess,” Roger Federer said at 2 o’clock Tuesday morning.
When would you ever have expected those words to come from the 20-time Grand Slam champion?
When would you have expected that in the heat of the night, it would be the five-time U.S. Open champion who wilted?
And when would you have expected the icon of the game to lose to the 55th-ranked player in the world in the wee hours at Arthur Ashe Stadium?
But it happened.
Federer struggled on serve, looked out of sorts, sluggish and mostly highly frustrated. And making 76 unforced errors didn’t help as he shockingly fell to speedy and determined John Millman, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3), in the fourth round, Federer's earliest exit at the Open since 2013.
"I just thought it was very hot tonight,” said Federer, who spent many of the changeovers with his head down. “Was just one of those nights where I guess I felt I couldn't get air. There was no circulation at all. I don't know, for some reason I just struggled in the conditions tonight. It's one of the first times it's happened to me.”
As the match wore on in the 80-degree heat, the stillness of the air in Ashe matched the disbelief of the crowd. Especially since Federer had leads in every set, then made error after error to let Millman off the hook, though credit the Aussie for consistently keeping up the pressure and reeling off impressive deep groundstrokes. And for beating the heat.
“Clearly just keep on sweating more and more and more and more as the match goes on. You lose energy as it goes by,” Federer said. “But John was able to deal with it better. He maybe comes from one of the most humid places on Earth, Brisbane. I knew I was in for a tough one. Maybe when you feel like that, as well, you start missing chances, and I had those. That was disappointing.”
Nothing portended the outcome after a standard first-set win by Federer in 33 minutes. "I felt like a deer in the headlights to begin with," Millman said. "My feet weren't moving, and Roger had it on a string and was manipulating me around the court."
But Millman had met Federer once before, in 2015 in sweaty Brisbane, and had given him a real tussle, losing, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. “I would have dearly liked to have taken my chance when I played him in Brisbane a few years ago,'' Millman said. "That kind of played on my mind a little bit going into this match.”
“Roger's a hero of mine. I look up to him. I really like his team. He's always been one of the guys in the locker rooms, we'll always chat, very approachable.''
Millman, while acknowledging that Federer’s game was off, gave himself credit for what he was able to bring to the court.
“I've always accounted myself pretty well,” he said. “Even in some slightly bigger matches that I've played, I've always felt as if I've done a good job of not letting the moment get the better of me.”
And he didn’t. Every time it seemed Federer was getting traction, Millman produced some key shots and Federer, seeming anxious to get the rally over, would make an error.
“I felt a little bit guilty today because he didn't have his best day, and that's for sure,” Millman said. “I know that. I'm very aware he didn't have a great day in the office. Probably to beat him I needed him to have an off day and I needed to have a decent, good day.”
Earlier this year, Federer invited Millman to Switzerland to practice with him. “We were looking for somebody who was a great guy, who could train hard, you know, maybe was looking also for a place to come to and practice on the grass or hard courts with me before Stuttgart,” Federer said.
So now Federer, at age 37, moves on with no signs of leaving the game he has so gracefully played and enriched.
“It was just hot. No shame there,” Federer said. “Just I think these are the things that unfortunately sometimes happen. So, you know, move on and take a rest. I'm happy I'm getting a rest now.”