MELBOURNE, Australia -- As usual, fans cheered Roger Federer to the limit Thursday, prompting calls from the umpire for silence. They cheered even when Federer didn't actually win a point, following their joyful shouts with loud, disappointed groans after learning an assumed ace was out. Even some in the media section applauded him.
How much do tennis fans love the guy? As someone tweeted, a woman stood and held a sign that read, "JUST MARRIED but willing to exchange for FEDERER!!"
Hopefully, that woman was not Novak Djokovic's wife.
"I talk about it every time, especially at the end of a tournament, how thankful I am for the crowd," Federer said of the support following his 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 loss to Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals. "It is an incredible run. It's a big part of why I'm still playing today. I spent a lot of hours on the practice courts for exactly moments like these where you feel like you're appreciated, you're being pushed forward, they want to see you win, and all that. I wish I could have one more chance to play another match here this week, but I don't. So of course I'm disappointed, maybe partly for my fans and also for myself.
"I want to come back next year. I want to relive it again. Can't wait for the next tournament. You know, everything's easier when you have a crowd like that."
The reasons why there is so much love for Federer are obvious. He may be the greatest player in the game's history, the winner of a men's record 17 Grand Slams. Even at age 34, he still is No. 3 in the world and playing superbly. He is so marketable, he took in $58 million in sponsorships last year. You can buy shirts with his RF logo in the Australian Open merchandise shop, and fans can be seen wearing that logo all over the grounds.
But it's time to spread the love to Djokovic, the finest player in the game right now, and the man who now has the lead in head-to-head matches against Federer.
It took 10 years and 45 matches, but Djokovic finally surpassed his rival, taking a 23-22 lead in the all-time series after Thursday's win. In addition to Federer, Djokovic holds the edge over the other players in the big five: 21-9 against Andy Murray, 24-23 versus Rafael Nadal and 20-4 against Stan Wawrinka. He also is one win away from tying the record for most Australian Open championships in the Open Era (six).
While Federer hasn't won a major in nearly four years, Djokovic has won three of the past four -- including two against Federer in the final -- and is heading to his fifth consecutive major final.
And bear in mind, he's just 28. He should win many more times. Enough to catch Federer's record for majors? Don't rule it out.
"Whether or not I'm going to be dominant in the years to come, I don't know. I cannot give you an answer on that," Djokovic said after Thursday's match. "I can try to do my best to try to keep playing on this level."
And oh, what a level he played at against Federer. Djokovic played a bad match this past Sunday, making 100 unforced errors in a narrow, five-set win against Gilles Simon. He was on a different planet against Federer, needing just 54 minutes to lock in the first two sets.
"I've had matches where I've played similar tennis," Djokovic said. "But I think against Roger, these first two sets have been probably the best two sets I've played against him throughout my career. I've had some moments against him in sets where I've played on a high level, but this a different level than from before."
Still, most fans were behind Federer. They gave him a standing ovation when he won the third set. They roared when Federer won a sensational rally in the fourth set. And they cheered him lovingly as he walked off the court at the end of the match.
Djokovic says he understands the Fed love.
"I feel like I'm enjoying lots of support around the world," he said. "I was saying before that, when I play Roger, [the support] is something that is expected in a way, considering his career and his greatness on and off the court, what he has done for the sport. He's loved. He's appreciated. He's respected around the world.
"For me, it's normal in a way. I'm trying obviously to enjoy my time, to do the best that I can with the tennis racket, but also focus on the positive energy rather than the negative, rather than getting frustrated for that. There's no reason."
The way he is playing, perhaps one day when Federer is gone, Djokovic will receive the same appreciation. He already should.