Roger Federer first played vs John Millman in Brisbane, five years ago. The 4-6 6-4 6-3 win took the Swiss over two hours, but there was no reason to think it was more than just a one-off. Especially as that was Federer’s first match that season.
Roger Federer vs John Millman matchup
Then we had the obvious one: theUS Open 2018 fourth round as Millman stunned Federer in four sets to deny a Federer-Djokovic quarterfinal. The Swiss was close to passing out in extreme humidity and sweated a ton in a really awful performance. The Australian played his game and the rock-solid baseline consistency gave him the best win of his career.
Their lone 2019 meeting in Halle was not at all easy for the Swiss. Grass is usually Federer’s courtyard but Millman held his ground well in a tight straight-set loss.
Even after seeing three matches of that surprisingly even rivalry, it was once again very easy to write Millman off prior to the 2020 Australian Open third round. Federer was fabulous in his dismissals of Steve Johnson and Filip Krajinovic and was expected to do the same to John Millman. But it was once again a very tough grind for the 20-time Grand Slam champion, who managed to get there in the end. What makes Millman’s game so effective against the Swiss?
Combination of great timing and excellent returning skills
Common thought is that Federer usually struggles with solid defenders. Is it a false statement? Definitely not. But then how to explain some of the matchups that Federer has dominated over the years, like the 17-0 head-to-head lead he has over David Ferrer. Why does Millman, while undoubtedly a much worse competitor than Ferrer overall, make Federer dig deeper than the Spaniard ever could?
The Swiss’ arguably biggest weapon is his supreme timing, a feature that allows him to take time away from his opponents and take the balls on the rise. That’s how Federer’s shots seem so powerful yet they don’t even require that much strength. Most great retrievers are used to getting the balls back from a metre or two behind the baseline.
Not Millman though. The Australian lured Federer into many cross court rallies where both players were pretty much standing inside the court. Not many would be able to survive a contest like that against the Swiss. But John Millman could. And as it is Federer who’s in the twilight of his career and a step slower, he needs to try to stay on top in the rallies at all costs.
Therefore, his average rally ball, especially one taken inside the court, has a much smaller margin of error than Millman’s. The Australian knew what he’s doing when engaging in many table tennis-like rallies, especially in the first set. They almost always went in his favour as Federer just couldn’t fight the right balance between risk and patience. It was a dilemma of whether to try and finish the points early, but possibly committing an unforced error, or to play many longer rallies and possibly wear himself out.
Getting inside Federer’s head
Coming out on one of the biggest tennis arenas in the world to play Roger Federer, not many would feel confident of their chance to win. But John Millman not only has that, he also lets his opponent know about that from the get-go. The way the Australian walks, his facial expressions – it all screams one thing to the rival on the other side of the net.
I believe there is a clear reason why we’ve never seen Federer relaxed against Millman. He’s simply intimidated by his antics. It might feel weird that a 20-time Grand Slam champion can have such a problem against someone who’ll most probably never come close to winning one. But the most important thing is that Millman believes it and he just doesn’t allow Federer to play it cool and loosen up.
That confidence shows in many different areas too – Millman seems to have a very good understanding of the game and what should work and what will not. His perfect physical preparation gives him the chance to potentially tire out the Swiss – and he is willing to run for every ball because he simply knows he can take it.
Millman clearly loves the big stage and has the right idea of how to play Federer from a tactical standpoint. While he may seem a powerless grinder in many other matchups, he takes more risks against the Swiss and never backs down, no matter what the situation in a game or a set is.
Out of the comfort zone
It’s clear and simple – if you allow Federer to play his game, you’ll likely lose. That’s no matter whether you’re Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, or John Millman. That’s why these who pushed Federer the more over the years have all found ways to keep the Swiss off-balance and force him to look for different options.
As Federer couldn’t really sustain an aggressive game against Millman, we over see him much more passive than he would like to in this matchup. Praised for his first-strike tennis and shortening down the points, the Swiss can’t quite do the same against the Aussie. That forced him today to play tennis in a way he’s not that used to.
Not being able to take time away from his opponent forces Federer to use his creativity. And while the Swiss is probably the most complete player of all the time and has a lot of rhythm-changers in his arsenal, this puts him under constant pressure. When you’re not allowed to play the game on your own terms, it is easy to start overthinking and stop concentrating on the basic idea of the sport – hitting the ball with the middle of your racket and not allowing your opponent to do the same.
What’s to come in the future?
Although there’s no way of telling if the two meet again in the future, Federer will definitely not want to see Millman’s name next to his in the draw. The Swiss had a couple of extraordinarily tough opponents over the years–David Nalbandian springs to mind (Federer leads the head-to-head 8-7)–and it’s fair to say that John Millman will always be an issue for him.
The Australian will not feel like he was outclassed at all, just that he missed his chance. There’s no doubt in my mind that the supreme confidence in his abilities will be there again the next time they meet.
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