At Melbourne Park, Roger Federer is king.
Not six-time Australian Open winner Novak Djokovic. Not world No.1 Andy Murray. And not Aussies Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic.
Instead, it is a 35-year-old from Switzerland who is cheered, adored, even worshipped, by the crowd in the world’s most liveable city.
Federer moved a step closer to ending a grand slam drought that has spanned nearly five years – and what a story that would be – with a 6-7 (4-7) 6-4 6-1 4-6 6-3 win over fifth seed Kei Nishikori on Sunday evening.
It followed Murray’s shock four-set defeat to unseeded German Mischa Zverev, a result that sees Federer avoid a quarter-final against the Scot, a player who he has beaten five times in a row but was perhaps not ready to face on the back of a six-month injury-induced break.
Federer will now play Zverev – who he beat 6-0 6-0 the last time they met – in the last eight and once again, he will have the vocal backing of the Melbourne fans who roared louder for him on Sunday than they had at any other point of this Open.
When asked by The New Daily about the support he received, the veteran said: “I’ve been always super welcomed here. I think it helps to come back here for almost the 20th year now.
“They [Australians] got to know me … got to meet a lot of people playing in this country. It clearly has been a benefit.
“It’s nice to be as popular as I am here and get the crowd support.
“It’s definitely uplifting in important moments. I felt that today, especially in the fourth, fifth set.
“They were driving me forward, really were hoping that I win. Makes you feel better, for sure.”
The pro-Federer crowd were quiet early, though, because this was a very different victory to Federer’s blitzkrieg of 10th seed Tomas Berdych in the third round.
He really had to work for this one, with his quest to become the oldest man to reach a grand slam quarter-final since Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open starting dreadfully.
Federer was broken twice and trailed 0-4, when, at 15-30 on serve, it would have only been natural for doubts to creep in.
After all, this is his first ATP-level tournament since Wimbledon last year.
Federer finally settled, though, and using his wealth of big-game experience, from 2-5, won four straight games.
He lost the opener in a tiebreak but still had the momentum, which helped him control the second set, won in 36 minutes. The third, in which he was even more destructive, took just 26.
Nishikori’s frustration was there for all to see when, trailing 0-30 and 0-1 in the fourth set, he smashed his racquet, as he continued to flirt with losing his serve.
But a marathon 10-minute game, in which he held to keep it at 2-2, proved decisive.
Federer slightly dipped after it, giving Nishikori a gap which he prised open to force a fifth and final set.
To the delight of Rod Laver Arena, Federer’s lapse was only momentary and an early break helped him to a 3-0 lead in the decider.
Nishikori sought medical treatment but it only served to delay the inevitable.
As Nishikori acknowledged afterwards, Federer – gunning for a fifth Australian Open title – was ‘way too strong’ when it counted.
And Federer’s celebration – far more elated than normal – at the end told the story.
He is desperate for that elusive 18th grand slam. And Melbourne is desperate for him to win it.
Top seed also goes in the women’s singles
Just like Murray, Angelique Kerber bowed out of the Australian Open on day seven, with Coco Vandeweghe having few problems against the world No.1.
Vandeweghe needed just 68 minutes to record a 6-2 6-3 victory as her aggressive tactics paid off.
The unseeded American smashed 30 winners – 23 more than her opponent – and made four breaks to book a quarter-final meeting with seventh seed Garbine Muguruza.
Other winners on Sunday in the women’s singles were Venus Williams and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, while Stanislas Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga triumphed in the men’s draw.