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MELBOURNE (Reuters) - It is not often that a 17-times grand slam champion is left humiliated but at break point down midway through the third set, Roger Federer must have wondered how much worse things could get in his Australian Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic.
The Swiss, who has left countless opponents red-faced with his spectacular racket-wielding skills, found himself on the receiving end of a demoralizing drubbing on Thursday as world number one Djokovic raced to a 6-1 6-2 lead.
In less than an hour, the most anticipated showdown of this year's championships was in danger of turning into a Djokovic blowout -- so much so that Federer's wife Mirka was spotted time and again burying her face into her hands.
In fact, in 352 grand slam matches, it was only the second time Federer had won three or fewer games in the first two sets - the last time being against Andre Agassi at the 2001 U.S. Open when he was still two years away from winning the first of his record 17 majors.
"I don't care if I lose a set 7-6 or 6-1. As long as you lose a set, it's not a good thing," said third seed Federer.
"I've seen Novak play this well before. It's tough when it's from the start because obviously you got to try to stop the
bleeding at some point."
But just when it seemed that Federer was on the verge of suffering his most lopsided defeat since Rafa Nadal allowed him only four games in the 2008 French Open final, the bloodbath finally stopped.
Federer first saved the break point in the fifth game of the third set and then brought 15,000 hollering fans to their feet when a lunging Djokovic hit a backhand into tramlines to end a mammoth 11-minute game which handed the Swiss a 4-2 lead.
That brought Federer's 34-year-old legs back to life and he sprinted around to win the set after Djokovic smacked a forehand long.
But stopping Djokovic over five sets has been a nigh on impossible task for more than a year -- with only Stan Wawrinka succeeding in that area in the 2015 French Open final -- and so it proved again on Thursday.
Despite the 6-1 6-2 3-6 6-3 defeat which allowed Djokovic to take a 23-22 lead in their head-to-heads, Federer remained optimistic that he still had a chance to end his 3-1/2 year grand slam drought.
"I get that you think I'm old and all that. But it doesn't scare me when I go into a big match against any player who's in their prime right now," said Federer, who was beaten by Djokovic in last year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.
"Novak right now is a reference for everybody. He's the only guy that has been able to stop me as of late.
"I have self confidence. That doesn't fade away. I can run for four or five hours. It's not a problem. I'm going deep in slams right now. I'm having great runs."
Writing by Pritha Sarkar; Editing by Mark Heinrich