At his most enjoyable, which is not always quite the same thing as his best, Roger Federer still plays tennis as if being directed by an elaborate prompt. Breeze through an Australian Open quarterfinal while utilizing the following shots: a backpedaling inside-out forehand, a knee-buckling lob, and a return-of-service backhand that may as well be directed by hydraulic tunnel for how neatly it whizzes into the lone section of uncovered court. All of this was present in Federer's three-set dismantling of Mischa Zverev Monday night in Melbourne, which was Tuesday morning in the United States. Federer played the hits.
The win moved Federer into a semifinal against countryman Stan Wawrinka this evening (or tomorrow morning); if he advances to the final, his old nemesis Rafael Nadal might be waiting for him. Notably absent are Novak Djokovic, who bowed out in the second round, and Andy Murray, who lost in the Round of 16. If the recent story of men's tennis has been aging greats ceding more and more ground to their usurpers, then 2017's first grand slam presents an opportunity for a kind of flashback. A Federer-Nadal final would owe a lot to fluke and fortune, but that wouldn't diminish these legends' efforts or dampen the event a bit.
About those efforts: there are no visual signs of age in Federer's play; he is as smooth as he has ever been. He doesn't haul around a gimpy leg or massage a tired shoulder. He could still play sonatas with his sneakers, and he still makes a forehand look more like expression of thought than physical effort.
It takes conscious effort, then, to appreciate the extra layer of astonishment. After his career dropped into a pattern over the last few years—losses to the likes of Djokovic leading to defeats at the hands of lesser-knowns—Federer missed two grand slams last season with injury. He entered this tournament as a 35-year-old ranked seventeenth in the world. Federer's style these past couple weeks, and the good luck he's had along the way, obscure the endurance plotline that would surely follow anyone who moved with less airy agelessness.
Federer offered a reminder of this when he struggled in his Round of 16 match against Kei Nishikori, falling behind two sets to one before pulling a familiar routine: folding his wide forehands back into the corners, pushing his opponent from side to side, shouting "Come on!" after winners as a signal to all watching that he was supplementing his celestial game with a dose of adrenaline. It was his recent tennis life in shorthand. He had to work to make it look easy again.
Federer acknowledges the unlikeliness of his position. "If someone would have told me I'd play in the semis against Stan, never would I have called that one for me," he said. "For Stan, yes, but not for me." But here he is, and it looks like old times—even if it isn't.