MELBOURNE, Australia -- It turned out that monster Roger Federer was talking about after his straight-set loss Friday in the Australian Open semifinals was not buried within, nor entirely of his own making.
Evidence surfaced that it was a karaoke-singing Serbian, 20-year-old Novak Djokovic, armed with a retro buzz haircut, an inspired flair for imitation of his tennis colleagues and the ability to hit a passing shot around the net post on a pivotal point.
Then there’s the monster’s ball, which Djokovic bounces and bounces and bounces, all the time before his serve, the tennis ball sounding like a lingering slow tap of water. Were the taps the soundtrack signaling the end of Federer’s era of dominance?
But this was the end of something significant. Federer’s astonishing streak of appearing in 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals stopped when the third-seeded Djokovic defeated him, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (5), at Melbourne Park.
In the final, Djokovic will play unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, who is in not only his first Grand Slam final but first main tour title match. They have never played each other.
The last time Federer wasn’t in the final of a major was at the 2005 French Open when he lost in the semifinals. Paris was also the last time he lost in straight sets at a Grand Slam, to Gustavo Kuerten in the third round in 2004. But those matches were on clay, his least favorite surface.
Who would have thought No. 1 Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal, a 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 loser to Tsonga, would fail to win a set in their respective semifinals?
Nadal was blown off the court by Tsonga’s power, and Federer, who had a stomach virus before the tournament, was undone by his less-than-stellar movement and Djokovic’s tactic of going heavy and flat to his forehand.
“After last night, we didn’t think it could get more dramatic,” said ESPN commentator Darren Cahill, the former coach of Andre Agassi. “But this one was certainly a shock to everyone with [Djokovic] winning in straight sets.
“It can only be great for tennis. Now we might have a few more people to talk about instead of Roger and Rafa. We’ve got a few guys standing up there, mixing it with the two big boys, not throwing the white flag every time they step on the court. Can’t really get better than that, can it?”
Tsonga, alone, is a terrific story, as his learning curve is equally impressive. His nickname on the tour is Ali because of his resemblance to a young Muhammad Ali. The 22-year-old is appearing in his fifth Grand Slam event, and will be trying to equal the feat of Boris Becker, who won Wimbledon in 1985, which was Becker’s fifth appearance at a major.
“No, I not believe it, but I’m here and I have to do it,” Tsonga said of his arrival on center stage.
His parents are flying in from France for the final. Tsonga’s mother is French, and his father once played international team handball for his native Congo.
Said Djokovic: “I think every sport is waiting for some new faces on the tour. Tsonga is coming up. It’s going to be interesting very much to see young players playing against each other. . . . I think the dominance of Federer and Nadal was just amazing the last couple of years. So I think it’s great for the media, for tennis lovers all around the world, to see something new.”
Djokovic has been saying that the players increasingly believe Federer is beatable and is one of the few to back up the words. He also seemed to have gotten under Federer’s skin after defeating him in the Montreal final last year.
The new generation has that confident edginess and Djokovic is the spiritual leader, responding with a forehand winner and fierce glance at chair umpire Pascal Maria, who hit him with a code warning for a time violation in the last game of the second set of the Federer match.
Still, this rematch of their U.S. Open final last year, which Federer won in straight sets, could have been much different had Federer served out the first set at 5-4. Instead he was broken at 30, making four unforced errors in that game.
“Well, we all know if I would have served it out, the match would have been a bit different,” said Federer, who lost nine of 10 games in a stretch starting in the first set and continuing until he was down 1-5 in the second.
“Sure he could have come back and still beaten me, but circumstances would have been different. He wouldn’t have played that freely in the second set. He usually doesn’t play that well.”
The downcast Federer, who remains two majors from tying Pete Sampras’ record 14 titles, had won the Australian Open three times, and he spoke about facing great expectations, saying he “created a monster.”
“Of course, I created a monster, so I know I need to always win every tournament,” he said. “But semis is still pretty good.”
Federer was asked to elaborate.
“Well, winning every other week, you know, lose a set and people say I’m playing bad,” he said. “So it’s my own mistake, I guess.”
Which brings us back to the monster, the one across the net, Djokovic, whose intensity on the court is undercut by his high spirits off it.
He charmed Maria Sharapova at the U.S. Open last year with his imitation of her service motion, and its quirks, that they were reported to have gone out singing karaoke duets until 5 a.m. This monster, quite certainly, knows how to have a ball.
* Who: Novak Djokovic (3) vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
* When: Sunday, 12:30 a.m., ESPN2