Dubai 2019: Tsitsipas is last remaining barrier to title No100 for Roger Federer after Coric win
Roger Federer will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Dubai final on Saturday
Roger Federer was certainly the elder statesman on semi-final day, the oldest man in the draw at age 37, and by far the most prolific winner the Dubai tournament has ever had.
The No2 seed needed no introduction in his second home: He has been coming to this tournament since he was 20, before he had won any of his 20 Majors. This week, he notched up his 50th match-win here on his way to his 11th semi-final, and was chasing his eighth title in the Emirates.
But there were a couple of important targets at stake for the Swiss champion. His ranking this season had slipped to No7, after he failed to defend his Australian Open title and opted out of Rotterdam, where he won last year.
But making the final here would take him to No5, and winning the title would return him to No4—and ahead of the Major-size double-headed Masters in Indian Wells and Miami, that was a prize worth having, a prize that would ensure he did not meet Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev before the semi-finals.
That, though, was a means to an end. The immediate priority was a particular milestone that has remained elusive rather longer than expected after Federer reached title Nos 96 and 97 back to back a year ago in Australia and Rotterdam. No100 beckoned, but he fell one win short in Indian Wells, one win short in Halle, one win short in Cincinnati.
Stuttgart and Basel delivered Nos 98 and 99, but 2018 ended without his 100th. Once he lost in the fourth round at the Australian Open, the spotlight turned on Dubai—and a prime chance to put the chase to an end. Federer spends much of his training season here, has an apartment here, and as that record over the years proves, has done pretty well on its courts.
However, on semi-final day, he knew that all three remaining men had scored significant wins over him.
Gael Monfils had won four of their last eight matches, and pressed the Swiss to the limit in many other meetings. In the event, he was put out of the equation by 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, who continued his superb season with a gruelling and gutsy three-hour, three-set win over the Frenchman.
And Tsitsipas it was who had played Federer at his own game in Australia—a brand of expressive, attacking tennis with echoes of his idol—and won in an extraordinary three-and-three-quarter-hour four sets. Certainly, Federer had beaten him in an equally high-quality match at the non-tour Hopman Cup, but Australia was a tough blow to take for Federer from a man almost half his age.
As he said after his semi-final here:
“Obviously, I was horribly disappointed and upset that I missed as many breakpoints as I did [he had 12], had all the opportunities that I had. That match kind of hurt in some ways. But, you know, it’s part of the game. He did very well to get out of those tricky situations.”
Tsitsipas has certainly built on his outstanding start to the year—his first Major semi in Australia, victory in Marseille, and now the final in Dubai. But first, Federer had to take on another impressive young player, Borna Coric, who had upset Federer not once by twice last year.
The first occasion was on Federer’s ‘home’ turf, the grass of Halle, a tournament that Federer has dominated even more than Dubai, and the young Croat won in three sets in the final. Coric then won in easier style in Shanghai. And in their only other meeting, also last year, he won the first set in the semis of Indian Wells in another long battle: Federer went on to lose the title to Juan Martin del Potro in a third-set tie-break.
So there was history, and some pride to be recouped over the 22-year-old who came here at a career high No12 and with two titles from five finals to his name.
Both men, young and old, had been forced to three sets multiple times this week, though Coric had burned the midnight oil: Three three-setters that finished late into the night—his quarter-final ended at 1am in his third successive tie-break conclusion.
In truth, Federer was yet to find his best tennis and rhythm in the blustery conditions that have hit Dubai this week. Against Coric, that changed, as Federer piled on the attack at the front of the court, and ran Coric ragged with pitch-perfect drop shots, and a few lobs to wear down the weary Croat.
The Swiss broke in the third game, and came through deuce for 3-1 with two more drop winners. Another break and hold, and it was 5-1 before Coric managed another game, and that was via two more break points.
And the second set unfolded along similar lines, with Federer taking control at the net or passing down the line when Coric attempted to change things up. The Swiss broke in the first game, again in the seventh, and served out the win to love with an ace, 6-2, in little more than an hour.
Federer, then, is into his 152nd final as he contemplates one more hurdle to No100—though it is a tall and very dangerous hurdle.
Federer described Tsitsipas in the most complimentary terms:
“It’s not the classic one-dimensional way [of getting it done]. He has many ways to do it. That makes him tough to play, tough to beat. He showed me that at the Australian Open, how hard he is.
“What I like about him is how he’s able to take the ball early time and time again. Serve, takes it early, comes to the net… Then on the backhand side, he has more air, which gives him a bit more margin. Yeah, for a big guy, he moves well… It’s nice to see all the qualities that he has. He has different ways to win points, which makes it hard to play against.”
One thing is for sure: it will be a final full of flair, attack, pace and variety. The tournament has been sold out all week, so unless you have a ticket, find the nearest screen for what may be a piece of tennis history.