“Federer is betterer.” Isn’t that the mantra that defines tennis these days? But maybe not on this day.
“Shush, genius at work,” that’s how know-it-all Federerians chide the chatty masses. But today things weren’t working so well for the game’s prevailing maestro.
“Roger that!” Well, that’s the usual call from fans after the Swiss creates yet another mind-boggling winner. But today it was “Roger, what’s up?” Goodness, the tennis god looked human. The No. 1 in the world, who regularly gives us one miracle after another, seemed decidedly mortal today in his semifinal match against a modest but zoning foe.
Croat Borna Coric – just 21 and ranked No. 49 – had scored incredible wins over Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray early in his career. The headlines had shouted, “Here’s the next big thing!” Coric bought into the headlines. But year after year, his game stagnated and his ranking flatlined. Recently he drew attention for dismissing his coach, his physio and his agent.
Today he almost dismissed the Greatest of All Time, as he played with calm and confidence to claim the first set over an out-of-sorts Federer.
But why was Roger sub-par? Why not blame it on the Irish? It’s St. Patrick’s day, so maybe the tennis leprechauns were getting a kick out of messing with the master. After all, Roger had been cruising, dismissing middle-ranked foes with a ho-hum ease. Was he overconfident? He’d crushed Coric the only time they’d played before. Or maybe it was a matter of the swirling desert wind that defied his surgical shots. Maybe it was the curious 11 a.m. start for the marquee man who’s usually showcased at prime time.
In fact, Federer seemed a bit sleepy. He hadn’t had such an early start since 2006. Maybe his 9:15 pasta feed was still weighing on him. More to the point, Coric was superb. He played within himself. He’d be patient and steady, then he’d pounce. He moved with ease and played fine defense. His kick serve jammed Roger. His deep forehands opened the court. His returns were strong and he made Roger go for low-percentage winners.
Often, the Swiss misfired. His backhand strayed. He netted drop shots and even failed to convert on a backhand overhead. “Where have all the winners gone?” asked his green-clad fans. Deep into the first set, with the score even at 5-5, Roger suffered yet another forehand error and Coric hit a crosscourt winner to score a critical break. On this overcast morning, a sense of dread overcame Stadium 1 – “This cannot be.” On a brilliant cross-court forehand, Coric captured the first set 7-5, then promptly broke serve and raced to a 4-2 lead. Now, and again in the third set, he would find himself just two games from scoring the shock upset of the year.
We think of Federer as a flowing virtuoso – the man who cannot avoid beauty. But he’s also a gritty, street-fighting man. Like a charismatic politician who wins despite what the polls predict, or a movie star who shines even though the script is wretched, our best athletes prevail – even when they’re far from their best.
So Roger clawed – he slowed the pace, he hit brilliant backhand slices, he defended with fury. He knew well that Coric absorbs power, moves well and plays seamless defense. If you don’t play well against him, you will lose. Nonetheless, Roger’s mid-day escape act would have done Houdini proud.
Roger confided that it was his toughest match of the year – and one he should have lost. He explained that he’d prevailed because he had experience and confidence: “There’s no real need to panic, because you can assess the situation quite easily and understand that the opponent is playing better. It’s breezy. It’s hard to play offense. And when I was playing offense he was defending well. With the neutral rally balls, I was missing a bit too many times.
“And it was a close match…Things could have shifted either way…Margins are slim at the top of the game. And I have been there so many times that you just hope to make the right decisions along the way, and it ends up falling your way. But for that you need to have a very positive mindset. You need to be match-tough, you need to be confident, have experience, and I have a bit of all of that right now.”
You think? Even before the match, we were given a big clue why Roger would prevail. Announcer Andrew Krasny told the crowd, “This 36-year-old now has held the world No. 1 ranking for a record 306 weeks and finished as the year-end World No. 1 five times. He’s captured 97 singles titles, the ATP world tour year-end championship a record 6 times, as well as 27 Masters 1000 trophies. He owns an all-time record 20 majors – the Australian Open in 2004, ’06, ’07, ’10, ’17, and ’18. Wimbledon in ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06, ’07, ’09, ’12, and ’17. Roland Garros in 2009, and the US Open in 2004, ’05, ’06, ’07, and ’08. From Switzerland, please welcome five-time BNP Paribas Open champion, Davis Cup champion, Olympic Gold medalist, and defending champion, and the No. 1 player in the world, Roger Federer.”
And it’s just that dizzying resume, that dominance and longevity, that we witnessed today in Roger’s astounding 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 win. The cream rose to the top, a sense of inevitability permeating the tense desert atmosphere. The man was on the brink of defeat more than once, yet ultimately won his 18th straight match of the year and continued the best start of his career.
Tomorrow he’ll face a heroic Argentine giant, 6’6″ Juan Martin del Potro, in hopes of gaining his sixth BNP Paribas title and his fourth tournament trophy of the year.
Don’t bet against this Swiss magician. Not only does he have a commanding record over Delpo, these days it remains true that “Federer is Betterer.”