Heading into the 2017 season after nursing a knee injury that had kept him out of the game since Wimbledon last July, Roger Federer had every reason to not ask too much of himself in the early stages of his comeback. Presumably, it was going to take time for the Swiss to compete favorably against the best players in his profession. According to all the rules of conventional wisdom, Federer was going to use the first half of this year to reacquaint himself with life in the upper levels of the sport, to rekindle the magical shot patterns that once seemed to flow from him effortlessly, and to recover the mindset that made him the man many consider the best player ever to pick up a racket. He may be a maestro on a tennis court, but even the most prodigious of performers are human beings masking their insecurities, and individuals who know how difficult it can be to reach the zenith of their aspirations.
And yet, here is Federer in the still young season, standing majestically as the player who has improbably accomplished considerably more than any of his rivals thus far in 2017. He opened his sterling campaign with an astounding triumph at the Australian Open, securing an 18th major in the process, claiming three five set victories against leading rivals, concluding his run by toppling Rafael Nadal in the title round by collecting five games in a row from 1-3 down in the final set. After a brief stumble in Dubai where he lost to Russian qualifier Evgeny Donskoy despite having two match points and a bundle of other opportunities, Federer has been unstoppable.
He has now taken three titles already in 2017 and the setback against Donskoy is his lone defeat. Moreover, the 35-year-old has pulled off the immensely difficult Indian Wells-Miami double for the third time in his illustrious career. The last time Federer realized that significant feat was in 2006, eleven long years ago. Only six other players have achieved that hard court, back to back, "Sunshine" honor: Jim Courier in 1991, Michael Chang in 1992, Pete Sampras in 1994, Marcelo Rios in 1998, Andre Agassi in 2001 and Novak Djokovic four times, including three in a row for the Serbian from 2014-2016. Federer had done it for the first time in 2005 and then repeated the sweep a year later, but he went into this years' Miami Open knowing that he would be very hard pressed to capture the crown in Florida for the third time.
Along the way, Federer was on the brink of defeat in both his quarterfinal and semifinal confrontations, but he survived those harrowing skirmishes and found himself in a third 2017 collision against Nadal. The Spaniard was appearing in his fifth Miami final, having lost to Federer in 2005, Nikolay Davydenko in 2008, and Djokovic in both 2011 and 2014. This time around, Nadal surged into the final without undue physical stress, dropping only one set in five matches, losing his serve only once with the exception of the 6-0 first set drubbing he took at the hands of Philipp Kohlschreiber in the round of 16 when he was thrice broken.
Nadal came into the final round contest fresh and seemingly both confident and eager. He needed to win this match much more than Federer, who was going for his fourth straight head to head victory over the ambitious left-hander. Although Nadal still led 23-13 in their cherished career series, Federer had dealt the Spaniard a pair of devastating setbacks this year, improbably turning their Australian Open final around down the stretch just when the Spaniard appeared to be closing in on victory, crushing his adversary with astonishing ease 6-2, 6-3 in the round of 16 at Indian Wells. Nadal was unmistakably disconcerted by both losses, for very different reasons. In the first of those clashes, he did not close an account he felt he should have won. In the next one, he could not find a way to get his teeth into the contest.
At the outset of this Miami Open final, Nadal was hitting the ball heavily and looking to establish a quick, early lead that might carry him forward commandingly and allow him to open up off both wings and thus start extending the rallies and forcing Federer to cover a lot of court. Nadal needed to implement his high topspin off the forehand, to loop the ball to the Federer backhand as he did in days gone by. He had to trust his slice serve in both the deuce and ad courts, to stretch the Swiss out wide on the backhand and not worry about some brilliant returns that would inevitably come his way. He should have pursued the patterns more regularly that worked for him in the past.
But Nadal chose instead to stick with his recent formula devised with the help of his coach Carlos Moya. He served frequently to the Federer forehand, but the Swiss was on to that plan and read it well. He directed his deliveries into the body with some success. But the Spaniard failed to go with the acutely wide slice serve nearly enough. In my view, his game plan was deeply flawed, and despite creating a good many first set opportunities to break and perhaps take control, Nadal missed too many routine shots off both sides and pressed badly as well, particularly off the forehand. His consistent lack of depth off the forehand was appalling. From his side of the net, there was very little that was encouraging about this outing. Facing a Federer who brilliantly concealed his fatigue, Nadal failed to orchestrate points the way he wanted as Federer asserted himself early in the rallies and rushed Nadal into mistakes.
And yet, the match was there for the taking from the standpoint of the Spaniard as the first set unfolded. He put himself in a position to break Federer right off the bat, but did not exploit that opening. The Swiss missed seven of ten first serves in the first game of the match, and Nadal looked comfortable from the backcourt as he twice advanced to break point. Federer saved the first by catching the line with a forehand winner off a short miss-hit shot from the Spaniard. On the second, Federer elegantly drove a backhand up the line and then moved forward to punch a backhand volley into an open space. Federer had missed his first serve on both break points but Nadal was unable to take advantage; his returns were not good enough. After two deuces, Federer aced Nadal down the T and released a penetrating backhand crosscourt to coax a running forehand error from Nadal. It was 1-0 for Federer.
The Spaniard responded to that disappointment forcefully, holding at 30 with an ace at 110 MPH out wide in the ad court. That was one of the few times he executed that serve effectively. Federer served more searchingly in the third game, holding at 15 with an ace out wide in the deuce court. He had taken a 2-1 lead. Nadal's anxiety was now evident. He narrowly missed a crosscourt backhand and followed with a forehand crosscourt pass that also missed by a slender margin: 0-30. Nadal collected the next two points but erred unjustifiably off the backhand to fall behind 30-40. Nadal saved the break point persuasively, using a well directed first serve to set up an aggressive forehand. Federer was drawn into an errant backhand. But he fashioned a second break point that Nadal promptly erased with an ace out wide at 97 MPH. Nadal followed with a winning overhead and an ace at 123 MPH down the T.
And so it was 2-2. Federer was stationed at 40-15 in the fifth game but Nadal travelled from there to break point. Yet he left a backhand too short, and Federer unsurprisingly pounced. He came forward unhesitatingly, and Nadal attempted an arduous forehand passing shot down the line. Nadal's shot caught the net tape. Having connected with eight of ten first serves, Federer moved out in front 3-2. Once more, the burden of pressure shifted back to Nadal. A beautifully flicked forehand passing shot down the line from Federer landed safely for a winner, taking the Swiss to break point in the sixth game. But Nadal stymied him there with a wide slice serve. He held on determinedly for 3-3.
Having fought his way successfully out of that corner, Nadal opened up another door. In the seventh game, Federer was once more down break point. During that exchange, the Swiss made Nadal stretch for a forehand down the line. Nadal's shot lacked sting and Federer drove a forehand crosscourt for an outright, impeccably measured winner. Buoyed by that development, Federer held on for 4-3. Serving at 30-30 in the eighth game, Nadal's slightly miss-hit forehand fell dangerously short. Federer stepped forward and sent a forehand inside in for an outright winner. Nadal proceeded to save a break point with a cagey body serve but his second serve on the following point was dangerously short. Federer's crosscourt forehand return was out of Nadal's reach. Now Federer rolled a forehand with extraordinary spin and good depth. Nadal, often a step slow on this stifling and almost oppressive day, was late and found wanting on the forehand.
Federer had been down at least one break point in three different service games during the set, and yet he now stood at 5-3 with a chance to close it out on his own delivery. From 15-15, he did just that, with some help from an opponent who was fighting himself in many ways. Nadal missed a backhand return long, needlessly drove another two-hander long under no duress, and then lost control of another backhand return. That one carried long as well. This string of errors concluded a well played set which ended in Federer's column. Collecting three games in a row at the end, Federer prevailed 6-3, predominantly on poise, big point proficiency and an inner belief that Nadal simply could not match.
Both men left the court at the end of that set. Nadal needed to change because his clothing was soaked. The two icons did not maintain the level they had reached over the sternly contested opening set. Nadal opened the second set by holding at 15, but now Federer was in a much better rhythm and his struggles on serve were largely and essentially over. Missing only one first serve, he held at love for 1-1 before Nadal moved to 2-1, holding at 30. Boosted by an ace that lifted him to 30-0, Federer produced another love hold for 2-2. Nadal retaliated by holding without the loss of a point for 3-2 but Federer was unyielding, holding at love for 3-3. He had served three love games successively.
Nadal realized he was not making any headway. At 30-15 in the seventh game he revealingly directed an inside out forehand wide. That unprovoked mistake made it 30-30. A scorching backhand crosscourt from Federer coaxed an error off the forehand from Nadal and gave the Swiss a break point, but Nadal audaciously wiped it away with a backhand drop shot down the line allowing him to move forward and cut off a crosscourt pass from Federer. The Spaniard volleyed into the open court. Federer then got to break point for the second time but Nadal cracked a two-hander down the line for a winner. He held on with vigor for 4-3, but that would be his last hurrah.
Briefly, however, Federer seemed either distracted or overanxious. Serving in the eighth game, he was way off the mark with a couple of forehands as Nadal made it to 30-30. Federer missed his first serve but Nadal, 84 minutes into the contest, faltered flagrantly. He ran around his backhand for an inside out forehand but hit it miserably. The shot landed inside the service line and Federer surged forward. His approach set up an impeccable forehand volley winner down the line. A service winner out wide to the forehand took Federer to 4-4, not far from victory.
Nadal did reach 30-15 in the ninth game but Federer got on top of the rally with a couple of booming forehands. Nadal erred on a backhand down the line. At 30-30, Nadal's plight worsened as Federer's backhand caromed off the net cord and fell awkwardly short. Nadal chased it down but Federer had closed in to play a nifty forehand lob volley over the Spaniard's head. Nadal tracked it down but had no play. At break point, knowing that Nadal was feeling an inordinate amount of pressure, Federer took his topspin backhand return down the line, rushing Nadal into a backhand down the line long.
Federer had made his move propitiously, as he so often does. He had bided his time but was now serving for the match at 5-4. He commenced that game with his only double fault of the match. But on the next point, Federer's inventiveness and propensity for the improbable winner at precisely the right moment emerged. Nadal played a looped backhand down the line with nice depth, and should have been in good shape. But Federer flicked a backhand down the line into the corner for a dazzling winner. He was back to 15-15. They went to 30-30 and then Federer grazed the line with an inside out forehand winner. At 40-30, he stuck with the recipe that got him to the verge of victory, serving wide to the Spaniard's backhand. Nadal's return was long. Federer had gained another triumph, ousting Nadal 6-3, 6-4 for his 26th triumph at a Masters 1000 tournament.
Remarkably, there has been a recent role reversal between these two towering champions; until this year, Nadal often seemed to have Federer partially beaten even before they walked on court, but now Nadal has lost four in a row to the Swiss—falling thrice in 2017 and losing five sets in a row—and it is he who seems to be the one with the wounded psyche who does not genuinely believe that he is going to win. Nadal has not broken Federer in their last two meetings.
Federer now owns 91 career ATP World Tour singles titles altogether. Jimmy Connors holds the record with 109 tournament wins and Ivan Lendl stands in second place with 94 titles. Federer will surely surpass Lendl but can he catch Connors? Perhaps he can, but that would be a tall order. I doubt it will happen.
In any event, that Federer was even in the final at Miami was a testament to his mental toughness, unwavering determination and extraordinary poise under pressure. The physical strain of chasing the Miami Open crown so soon after Indian Wells was apparent from the outset. The captivating Frances Tiafoe took Federer to 7-6 (2), 6-3. Next Federer accounted for Juan Martin del Potro in a comfortable 6-3, 6-4 encounter. But the tenacious and underrated Roberto Bautista Agut took on the Swiss in the round of 16, serving for the first set before losing a very physical match 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4). Bautista Agut played some wily chess on the court that day, using the entire court, forcing Federer to play tough and long points, turning it more or less into a clay court contest.
And that set the stage for a quarterfinal showdown between Federer and Tomas Berdych, a player who for six consecutive years (2010-2016) concluded every season at either No. 6 or No. 7 in the world. He came into Miami having dipped to No. 13. Federer had defeated Berdych six times in a row since 2013, building up his lead in their rivalry to 17-6. He crushed Berdych 6-2 in the first set of this collision but Berdych broke for a 5-3 second set lead and served it out in the ninth game, thus ending a 15 set losing streak against his renowned adversary.
On they went to an exhilarating final set. Berdych reminded us in this stretch why he upended Federer at Wimbledon in 2010 and again two years later at the U.S. Open, both times in four set quarterfinal duels. He was back to his overpowering best from the backcourt, striking the ball cleanly, keeping Federer frequently at bay with his pace, depth and consistency. On top of that, the 6'5", 31-year-old was serving robustly and returning better than he had in a long while against the Swiss.
And yet, Federer advanced to 5-2 in the third set, serving for the match at 5-3. Berdych caught him off guard with a forehand return winner on the first point of that game. Federer double faulted for 0-30. Berdych unleashed a forehand return winner off a second serve: 0-40. And then Berdych broke with a solid return down the middle off a first serve coaxing a forehand error from Federer.
Having broken at love, Berdych served at 4-5 but was down match point. With gutsy determination, he sent a second serve down the T at 120 MPH that Federer could not answer. Berdych held on for 5-5. Both players held to set up a tie-break. Berdych was serving at 6-4, up double match point, on the edge of his biggest win in a long while. But he inexplicably netted a forehand crosscourt off Federer's return down the middle. How could he not have given himself more margin for error and made Federer earn that critical point?
We will never know the answer to that question. Now Federer served at 5-6 and went down the T in the ad court to lure Berdych into an errant return. They changed ends of the court. Federer aced Berdych to earn his first match point at 7-6. Berdych's frailty was painfully evident as he double faulted the match away. Federer escaped 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (6). Ironically, six years earlier in Miami, it was Berdych who rallied gallantly from match point down to oust the Swiss in a final set tie-break.
In the semifinals a night after recovering against Berdych, Federer took on the charismatic, confounding, infuriating, enormously gifted and inspiring Nick Kyrgios. They played on Friday evening in ideal conditions. It was apparent that both players would need to probe more than usual from the baseline with the cooler evening air somewhat slowing things down. That made for top of the line tennis, creative shotmaking, thrilling athleticism plus a supreme test of skills and wills.
Here was the 35-year-old, incomparably popular Federer facing a polar opposite in temperament and sensibility. The contrasting personalities were part of the intrigue; the rest was the arresting styles of the ever elegant and classical Federer versus the modern day model of aggressive tennis in Kyrgios. Moreover, they are arguably the two best servers in the game right now, not excluding the magnificent deliveries of Milos Raonic and John Isner and the enduring Ivo Karlovic as well. Add to that the propensity of both players to hit unimaginable winners from impossible positions at any time, and all the ingredients were in place for a blockbuster.
That is exactly what we got. In the early stages, Kyrgios was not yet firing with his customary combination of power and precision on serve. He was feeling his way into the match, gauging what he needed to do, and figuring out the right way to confront Federer. They had only played once before. In the spring of 2015, Kyrgios was the victor in his debut match against Federer, succeeding by scores of 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (12). Kyrgios saved two match points in that stirring skirmish.
This time around, Kyrgios wiggled out of a break point in the second game of the match, and saved two more in the fourth game to reach 2-2. But he achieved the first break in the seventh game for a 4-3 lead. At 5-4, he served for the set. He was down 0-30 before serving an ace out wide. But Kyrgios then became too adventuresome with a backhand volley down the line volley hit with sidespin that faded wide. At 15-40, Kyrgios double faulted, gambling with a 127 MPH second serve down the T that backfired.
That was the single most important game of the match. Kyrgios never lost his serve again. He did save a break and set point against him at 5-6 with an ace out wide at 130 MPH. They settled that set in a tie-break. Kyrgios saved two set points. Federer saved a set point. And then Kyrgios had a second set point, this one on his own delivery. He sent a 132 MPH first serve to the Federer backhand. The Swiss chipped a return off the backhand short and low, forcing Kyrgios to dig that shot out and go crosscourt. Federer had opened the court for a backhand winner down the line.
That made it 9-9 in the sequence. Kyrgios was apparently shaken, double faulting long as 123 down the T. Federer wrapped it up 11 points to 9 as Kyrgios impetuously went for a backhand winner down the line that was never in the cards. In the second set, Federer was utterly dominant on serve, holding at love four times, winning 24 of 27 points. Kyrgios rallied from 15-40 at 3-3 in a crucial game. The second set tie-break was pulsating. Federer led 5-3 but Kyrgios took the next point and then went to 5-5 with a breathtaking forehand inside in winner straight down the sideline with the smallest possible margin for error. Federer reached match point at 6-5 but Kyrgios denied him there with a savvy serve-and-volley on the first delivery at 100 MPH. That kicker worked; Federer's backhand chipped return drifted long. At 7-8, Kyrgios saved a second match point with a heavy 88 MPH second serve kicker, eliciting a netted topspin backhand return from Federer. Federer saved a set point at 8-9 with a winning forehand that landed directly on the line.
But then Kyrgios startled everyone. Federer punched a forehand volley crosscourt, keeping that shot extraordinary low. Kyrgios somehow walloped a forehand passing shot crosscourt that was practically out of this world. Now ahead 10-9, he aced Federer wide to the backhand. Set to Kyrgios, eleven points to nine in the tie-break. Both men sedulously held their serves all across the third set. And so, fittingly, it all came down to another tie-break to determine the outcome of a sparkling shootout.
Federer opened that sequence with sheer majesty. Kyrgios drilled an inside out backhand return to stretch the Swiss out. The Australian took a short reply from Federer and approached forcefully and deep on his opponent's backhand. Federer somehow flicked a backhand passing shot winner up the line, rousing the crowd, giving himself a 1-0 lead. Kyrgios, however, resolutely captured three points in a row before Federer got back on level terms at 3-3 and then 4-4.
When Federer surprisingly slightly overhit a crosscourt forehand that he would rarely miss, Kyrgios was serving with a 5-4 lead. He was two points away, perhaps two swings away, from an enormously gratifying three set triumph in front of a crowd that was almost entirely on Federer's side. Kyrgios had lost his cool periodically but had somehow kept himself from emotionally unravelling. But now he lost his composure. Federer hit a backhand down the line very deep, and a fan yelled out, perhaps thinking the ball would be called long. Kyrgios miss-hit a forehand wide and he was incensed. But there was no recourse: it was 5-5.
Kyrgios now rolled the dice one last time, going for a second serve down the T at 128 MPH. He missed it long. The costly double fault gave Federer match point at 6-5, and he would not waste the moment, serving out wide to the backhand. Kyrgios never had a chance. Federer had prevailed in the match of the year 7-6 (9), 6-7 (9), 7-6 (5) in three hours and eleven minutes. The Australian regrettably smashed his racket three times, moved toward the net to shake hands with Federer, and smashed the frame again. He was understandably dismayed by not closing out the account, but could have been more dignified in defeat. The fact remains that his greatness is not to be debated; if he keeps working on his impulse control and grows up, a champion he can't help but be.
Federer easily can recollect the frustrations of youth. But now as he approaches his 36th birthday in August, the Swiss is revitalized. He does not plan on competing again until the French Open, although he might reevaluate some time between now and then. Imagine walking into the French Open without any clay court preparation and making a run deep into the draw, perhaps even winning it. After all he has done this year—taking one major and two Masters 1000 tournaments already—who could put it past him to do something patently absurd on the red clay of Roland Garros? That is clearly a long-shot, but as long as he stays injury free, winning Wimbledon is entirely possible.