Federer survives beautiful match from unheralded opponent

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Roger Federer might like to say he's playing against history, but Saturday, he had to play literature buff Janko Tipsarevic.

Tipsarevic is the Stealth Serb -- a 23-year-old bundle of energy who quietly snuck into the top 50 last season while three of his fellow citizens basked in newfound limelight. He loves classic literature and has one arm tattooed with a quote -- "Beauty will save the world" -- from "The Idiot" by Russian master Fyodor Dostoevsky, which he is re-reading for the third time.

Anytime Tipsarevic is asked about his Serbian compatriots Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, he speaks proudly, often saying they all started "from mud" in their conflict-scarred country. He nearly turned that mud into gold against Federer, stretching the world No. 1 to the longest fifth set of his illustrious career before being vanquished 6-7 (5), 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-1, 10-8 in the third round of the Australian Open.

The 63 games in the 4-hour, 27-minute match tied the most Federer has ever had to play. It also marked yet another strenuous outing in a Grand Slam event where he's had some tricky matches over the years. He didn't drop a set on his title campaign last year, but he squandered match points in losses to Marat Safin in the 2005 semifinal and Tommy Haas in the 2002 round of 16 and has been pushed on a few other occasions.

Had it not been for what Tipsarevic called an unreadable serve -- Federer smoked a career-high 39 aces -- this match might have been inscribed in red ink, as well. Both men agreed that the 49th-ranked Tipsarevic played better from the baseline, lashing passing and cross-court shots, digging for balls Federer thought he had buried.

But in typical stately fashion, Federer pronounced the resistance Tipsarevic put up as a positive.

"Just being there in a five-setter is good for me because I'm hardly ever there," Federer said. "It's good for my mind-set for the next one. … My last five-setter was back in Wimbledon, I guess. When it happens, you have to take the most out of it."

Federer can afford to look at things that way, viewing every challenge he encounters as something attributable to his own greatness. Reminded that he converted only five of 21 break-point opportunities, Federer replied that it was his own fault the numbers looked so lopsided.

"Look, it happens sometimes," he said philosophically. "I had that a few times in my career already. I create myself so many opportunities, and then it's just, you don't make them." He's the only guy in the game that could say that without sounding insufferable.

Beauty might, in fact, save the world, but Tipsarevic, his soulful eyes burning behind jock-nerdy glasses, had to save two set points in the third to elongate a beautiful match. He said he was able to pull off what might be the most difficult thing of all against the man who is gunning for the all-time Grand Slam win record -- convince himself he was in the match before it started.

"You have to believe that you're going to beat Roger Federer when you go on court, as stupid as it might sound," he said.

"If you go out there thinking, 'I'm going to play a good match, make him sweat for his money' or something like that, it's not going to work. Because then when the chances are given to you, and even Roger Federer is giving chances, you're not going to use them because you're going to be too afraid for victory. So I went on court with the idea that I can win. I was close. I lost because he was better in the important moments of the match."

Federer smelled that self-assurance. "I was back against the wall, and I was playing a guy who's confident and believes in his chance," he said. It might be a feeling he becomes more familiar with this year.

Almost imperceptibly, he lost ground in the rankings late last year. In this tournament, for the first time since mid-2004, No. 2 Rafael Nadal has a mathematical chance to pass him. It would take the somewhat unlikely scenario of Federer failing to reach the final and Nadal winning the title, but magic numbers are magic numbers.

When reporters asked Federer about Tipsarevic's tattoo, he smiled. "The one on his back?" he said. "Have you seen that one? That's even bigger."

It takes one to know one. Federer has one of the biggest bull's-eyes in sports on his back this season, and there will be a certain number of players who make their competitive delusions come true against him.

Although it's easy to dwell on which of Federer's chief rivals might delay his seemingly inevitable march to the Slam record, Tipsarevic proved what self-belief can do for a lower-ranked player. In that effort, he might have drawn inspiration from another Dostoevsky novel. This passage comes from "The Insulted and the Injured," a title that could be applied to the ATP during Federer's reign of terror the past few years:

You're a poet, and I'm a simple mortal, and therefore I will say we must look at things from the simplest, most practical point of view.

The mere mortal's pragmatic game plan fell a little short this time, but it wouldn't be surprising if Federer finds he has to work harder than ever to fend off the proletariat.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.