A gorgeous crosscourt backhand that caught the other man by surprise, then a breathtaking inside out forehand down the line that downright shocked him: that was the match that was, except for a final service winner, as Roger Federer triumphed at the Miami Open, decisively beating his old friend and rival, Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-4.
It was a moment to stir the heart — or to break it. For fans of the Swiss genius, it topped off a fantastic return following half a year on the disabled list, one that went beyond his own stated goals: Australian Open, fifth trophy, first since 2010; Indian Wells (California), fifth trophy, first since 2012; and Miami Open Masters, third trophy, first since 2006. Not bad for a 35-year-old father of four who claimed he only wanted to ease his way back into the tour gradually following the rehab from last year’s injuries.
For fans of the Spanish champ it was not bad; after all, being in the finals means only one other man can beat you in a field of 128 (both Miami and Indian Wells are Masters 1000 tournaments, the only ones with the same draw as the Majors, or Slams). But Miami has always eluded Rafa Nadal despite being a finalist three times. Moreover, Federer beat him in the finals in Australia, the quarters at Indian Wells, and again at Miami. It had to sting, but both men were gracious at every stop, repeating variations of Federer’s comment in Melbourne that the prize could have gone to either player.
The fact is, though, that while both Nadal and Federer have demonstrated in these first weeks of the 2017 Tour that reports of their demises were premature, Federer’s game is the one that has seen the most improvement. Nadal, for most practical purposes, is back to his old form: speed and power and never-give-up. Federer may have been in rehab for a damaged knee, he also studied the situation, in toto: his own strengths and weaknesses and his opponents’.
Prominently, he has a new backhand which withstands Nadal’s mighty southpaw service zooming into the alley on the ad side of the court. Perhaps even more remarkable, it withstands the breathtaking service bombs of the young Australian prodigy, Nick Kyrgios, whose second — second — service frequently dives in at 130 or 135 mph. In the Miami Open semis, Federer and Kyrgios went game for game for three sets, needing a tiebreaker each time.
To win against a rejuvenated Nadal, still-improving late bloomers like Stan Wawrinka (whom he beat in the finals at Indian Wells) and Tomas Berdych (Miami quarters), and hot new stars like Kyrgios, Federer must remain what he has been for most of his career (he won his first grand slam at Wimbledon, 2003): the one with the most court smarts.
Federer is rightly admired for his elegance and classical form; but observers not seldom assume that this is largely a matter of his superior speed, footwork, and eye. He has those, but the speed is somewhat deceptive. He is not as fast as many of his rivals — certainly not Nadal. He is almost always in position not because of superior speed but because he knows where the ball is coming, for the good reason he is directing it. This is called dictating the point, and there is little doubt that while the debate on who is the best player of all time is by definition impossible, you can state, by reviewing game patterns, how well players across decades and generations “dictate,” i.e. control, the flow of the point.
Since his return to the Tour at the beginning of the year, Federer has been doing this as well as, or better, than ever. Always primarily an attacking player, he has developed shots to keep his own offensive momentum going until a winner is set up. He has the aggressive net game on today’s circuit, the most clutch service, the most shockingly consistent shots to the lines. He admits without false modesty he did not expect such success, but acknowledges he may be playing the best tennis of his life. It certainly looks that way.
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