When Roger Federer suffered a shock loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the fourth round of the Australian Open, all the old mutterings started up again. Has he lost a step of pace? How long can he go on? Have we seen the best of him?
Such reflex questions have now been comprehensively answered. Over the past month, the 37-year-old Federer has been comfortably the outstanding player across the so-called “Sunshine Double” of spring hard-court tournaments: first Indian Wells, where he finished as runner-up, and then Miami, where he lifted his 101st ATP title on Sunday night.
Sunday’s final was a tough occasion for Federer’s opponent John Isner, who was defending the title he claimed last year. Not only was he up against a player in supreme and silky form, but he damaged his foot so painfully that he suspected he might have broken it. Isner said afterwards that the pain was worse than anything he had previously experienced, and he showed real courage in limping on to the end of his 6-1, 6-4 defeat.
Would it have made any difference? Perhaps not, on the basis of the early exchanges, in which Isner was broken three times in the first set and made so little impact on the other side of the net that Federer at one stage reeled off 21 straight points in his own service games. Both of these players are sometimes credited with owning the best serve in tennis, although their styles are hugely different.
In the second set, Isner raised his own first-serve percentage to an extraordinary 85, which allowed him to stay on terms until the score reached 4-4. But he had called the physio onto the court by now, and that injury to the upper part of his left foot had effectively made him a lame duck.
“Somewhere along in the first set I started feeling some pain on the top of my foot, and it didn’t go away,” said Isner afterwards. “It’s a terrible feeling, because you’re on an island out there. You have no teammates to hide behind and going up against the greatest player ever, playing in this incredible atmosphere, and my foot’s killing me. “Not that I would have won the match anyways, let’s make that clear, but I think I could have made for a more interesting match and one that was a little more fun.”
Federer’s victory leaves him just eight tournaments short of Jimmy Connors’s all-time record of 109 ATP tour titles. Were he so inclined, he could probably pick up those victories without too much difficulty by playing in 250-point events on the bottom rung of the tour, but that would be entirely out of character. Instead, he is now committed to appearing on the clay for the first time since 2016. The two lucky tournaments are the Madrid Masters in early May and the French Open at the end of that month.
Federer’s extraordinary form in America was especially impressive because the conditions at this pair of fortnight-long events could hardly be more different. The air is dry in the Californian desert, encouraging the ball to fly, whereas Miami’s humidity slows everything down. Everything, that is, apart from Federer apparently timeless reflexes.
So it is that for the third time in as many seasons, Federer stands at No. 1 in the so-called “Race to London” (rankings points accumulated that year alone) as the tour moves into the European clay-court swing. He might have missed out in Australia, but his 2019 win-loss record has climbed to 18-2 with two titles: first Dubai, which brought up his century, and now this latest age-defying feat.
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