Australian John Millman, facing Roger Federer in the third round of the Australian Open on Friday evening down under, was leading 8-4 in a fifth-set tiebreaker, just two points away from pulling off the upset. But Millman’s end came soon enough, in a typical Federer flurry. A backhand winner, via Federer’s magic wand of a tennis racquet. Millman committed unforced errors, as Federer refused to relinquish the point. A Federer drop shot. Federer ran off six straight points, thanks to his angles and agility, still strong at age 38. He won the match, a 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 epic, to advance to the fourth round.
Federer enters the 2020 season seeking a cushion on his Grand Slam record. He’s won 20 Grand Slam singles titles, more than any other male player ever. But Rafael Nadal is chasing him down: Nadal won the French Open — his ridiculous 12th — and the U.S. Open in 2019, to give him 19 Grand Slam championships for his career. Federer last won a Slam two years ago, at the Australian Open. Novak Djokovic, who won the Aussie Open and Wimbledon — over Federer in the final — in ’19, is also in very much in the mix, with 16 career titles.
Federer, however, insists he’s not as focused on his Slam total as fans and media. “At the end of the day, I don’t play tennis just to protect that record,” Federer told TIME before the start of the tournament. “I‘m actually here to create my own story.” For Federer, breaking the Grand Slam record was a career pinnacle: he passed Pete Sampras, who won 14 singles titles, at Wimbledon in 2009, when he outlasted Andy Roddick in the final, winning the fifth set 16-14. “That was my moment,” says Federer, “anything else I always said was a bonus.”
Would Federer prefer to hold the Grand Slam record forever? Of course. But if Nadal, Djokovic or someone else down the road surpasses him, Federer swears he’s “totally at peace. Totally at peace.”