Roger Federer’s usual smoothness was gone, washed away in the river of sweat that plastered his shirt to his body on a steamy night. The world’s No. 2 player, a 20-time Grand Slam champion and five-time conqueror of the craziness that is the U.S. Open, was being pushed around the court by world No. 55 John Millman of Australia in their fourth-round match Monday night and no one could believe it, least of all Federer.
His unforced errors and double faults were mounting against the man he invited to practice with him earlier this year. And the tension was mounting at Arthur Ashe Stadium, where a stunned crowd watched Federer unsuccessfully serve for the second set, squander a set point in the third-set tiebreaker and break Millman’s serve midway through the fourth set, only to be knocked back each time.
A weary-looking Federer couldn’t work his usual magic against the plucky Millman, who had never before reached the round of 16 at a Grand Slam event. Millman’s improbable 3-6, 7-5, 7-6(7), 7-6 (3) upset of Federer shook up the U.S. Open men’s field and became an instant reassurance for the underdogs who believe and fight when reason and oddsmakers proclaim their cause is lost. Millman had been 0-10 against players ranked in the top 10.
“I felt a bit like a deer in the headlights against Roger. He had me on a string. He was manipulating me around the court,” Millman, speaking in an on-court interview, said of his shaky start. “He’s been a hero of mine and today he was definitely not at his best, but I’ll take it.”
Federer committed a staggering 77 unforced errors (to 28 by Millman) and 10 double faults, including two in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Federer fended off two match points but when he hit a forehand long the result was sealed, unlikely though it was. He had never before lost at the U.S. Open to a player outside the top 50. “I just thought it was very hot tonight and it was just one of those nights I felt I couldn’t get air,” he said. “John handled it better. He comes from one of the most humid places on earth, Brisbane. … It’s disappointing but also at some point I was just happy the match was over.”
It wasn’t until the second set that Millman, who looked around him in seeming awe each time the players got a breather, began to shake off his nerves. He was down 3-5 in the second set but pulled even on a double fault by Federer, held for 6-5 and came back from down 15-40 to win the 12th game and the set. In the third set, with the crowd growing increasingly nervous, he fended off a set point and won the tiebreaker with a good forehand followed by a long forehand struck by Federer.
Serving at 5-6 in the fourth set, Millman pulled even with an ace. He rolled to a 6-1 lead in the tiebreaker before Federer, again, couldn’t find any answers. “You just keep on sweating more and more as the match goes on and you lose energy,” Federer said.
So it will be Millman — who said he planned to wake up early on Tuesday for a football fantasy draft but hadn’t decided whether to take Todd Gurley or Le’Veon Bell — against Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals instead of another Federer-Djokovic confrontation. Djokovic did his part by overcoming the searing heat to get past Joao Sousa of Portugal 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. “I’m really pleased with where my game is at, at the moment,” Djokovic said. “Getting into quarterfinals, ready to perform well.”
Until Millman played the match of his life, the best theater featured Indian Wells champion Naomi Osaka reaching her first Grand Slam quarterfinal with an erratic but exciting 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 victory over fellow 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus at Louis Armstrong Stadium. Osaka cried afterward, grateful to put behind her the memory of losing to Madison Keys in the third round of the 2016 U.S. Open after she had taken a 5-1 lead in the third set.
“Every time I play a Grand Slam, people ask me am I going to go farther than the third round. Then in Australia I went to the fourth round, then people were like, ‘Are you going to go farther than that or is that where you’re going to stop?’” said Osaka, who was born in Japan but grew up in New York and trains in Florida. “I’ve always dreamed of playing here and going to the quarterfinals and further.”
A rematch of the 2014 U.S. Open final was created when No. 7-seeded Marin Cilic, fueled by 12 aces and a punishing forehand that helped him tally 43 winners, earned a 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-4 victory over David Goffin. He will face Kei Nishikori, who eased past Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.
But what everyone will remember is the sight of Federer waving to the crowd Monday night and walking off in defeat. His Open is over, ending in the most unlikely and memorable fashion.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen