Roger Federer beats Tsitsipas to make his ‘magical’ 100 at last in Dubai
“This one has a deep satisfaction, an immediate one, because I know what it means," says Roger Federer after the final
Roger Federer has more records than you can shake a stick at. The most Majors, 20; the most weeks at No1, 310; the oldest No1.
More titles that anyone at the World Tour Finals, six, or at Wimbledon, eight, or at the Cincinnati Masters, seven, or the 500s in Basel and Halle, nine.
But this week in Dubai, as he worked his way to the final, he was also within touching distance of re-joining the top four after a slip to No7—and he was aiming to extend his record in Dubai to eight.
So there were two particularly valuable milestones on the line for the Swiss star, and make no mistake: He would dearly love to get No8 in the city that has been his second home. But there was a still bigger number on the line: 100. One more victory in what has become a 20-year career of match-winning by a man who turns 38 this summer would bring up a century of titles, a tally topped only by Jimmy Connors’ 109.
But No100 had remained more elusive than many expected when Federer reached titles 96 and 97 back to back a year ago in Australia and Rotterdam. 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 this year, the spotlight turned on Dubai—and a prime chance to put the chase to an end.
And his record in the Emirates was certainly an intimidating one for his opponents. As he readied for the final, he had accumulated 52 match-wins for just six losses, reached his 11th semi-final, and now his 10th final.
In truth, Federer had struggled to find his best tennis and rhythm in the blustery conditions that hit Dubai this week. It took him three sets apiece to beat Philipp Kohlschreiber, Fernando Verdasco and Marton Fucsovics. But against young Borna Coric, it all changed, perhaps helped by the extra motivation to avenge two key defeats to the Croat last year—one of them denying him the Halle title.
Now, though, he would have to face an even younger, even bigger star who had also inflicted a serious wound on Federer: Stefanos Tsitsipas was responsible for putting out Federer in the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open.
And the explosive and charismatic Greek, who idolised Federer as he grew into his expressive, athletic tennis, broke the top 10 for the first time with a superb win over Gael Monfils in the semis. Certainly, Federer had beaten him at the non-tour Hopman Cup, but Australia had been a tough blow by a man almost half his age, just 20.
Yet 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… He has different ways to win points, which makes it hard to play against.”
Tstisipas’s brand of tennis had certainly caught the imagination, and rightly so. He did not win his first main-tour match until 18 months ago, and the very next week reached the semis in Antwerp. By the start of last year, he had broken the top 100, then beat three top-20 players on the way to the Barcelona final, reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, the semis of Washington, and made a Masters final in Toronto after beating four top-10 players.
By the end of 2018, he had won his first title in Stockholm and the NextGen Finals in Milan, to arrive at this year’s Australian Open ranked No15—and there made his first Major semis. He then built on his outstanding start to the year by winning in Marseille, before heading to Dubai, now up to 15 match-wins for the year.
This time, Federer hit early and hard, bringing up break points with a huge forehand winner. A wide reply from Tsitsipas brought a break in the first game.
Federer’s opening service game broke out a drop-shot winner, a pick-up volley winner and another huge forehand winner, 2-0.
It was cold, and again blustery, but Tsitsipas began to show signs of warming up. He had admitted to stiffness, especially in the back, after his tough Monfils encounter. Federer would want to test that, as he had Coric, but the Greek held with a fine forehand for 2-3.
Federer threw in a love hold with precision serves and a volley winner, 5-3, but Tsitispas had some tricks of his own, picked up a drop to make a lob winner, and held. He was certainly showing no signs of tiredness or stiffness, and earned his first break point as Federer served for the set, and then a second. But Federer was pumped up for this, and roared himself to a hold, 6-4. The Centre Court erupted, but there was a way to go yet before their clear favourite had reached his goal.
In the second set, Tsitsipas, to his credit, did not back off, and continued his attacking play. Between them, it was exciting, fast-paced tennis, and there was little between the two through the second set. Both served to a very high level: Federer would drop only three points on serve in the entire set, while the Greek did not look vulnerable until he double faulted in ninth game.
Federer sensed his moment, converted his only break of the set, and again the arena exploded. The Swiss had wavered at such moments before, but this time, his confidence totally engaged, he served out the set and match to love, 6-4, for his 100th title, his eighth in Dubai.
Tsitsipas looked, naturally, dejected, but was generous in his on-court speech: It was clear how much respect he had for his idol.
“It’s an honour playing against Roger. I’ve said it thousands of times, I’ve been idolising him since the age of six and watching him on TV, I was just like you guys,” he said to the crowd.
“Now sharing the court, it’s even better. You’ve created history in tennis and keep doing what you’re doing.”
He went on to acknowledge how aggressive Federer had been in this statement contest:
“He was very aggressive, didn’t give me any time today. I was expecting it, for him to be a little more aggressive. He just seemed like he was having control over everything he was doing, taking the ball super early, on the rise, giving me no time to prepare.
“It was a very fast-tempo game. It felt like he was controlling everything on his own terms. He was just very, very aggressive.”
It was a fair, an accurate assessment: even on the Tsitsipas serve, Federer did not hold back, coming forward, taking his chance, threatening at every opportunity.
A contrast, it should be said, to the serene, calm man who accepted the plaudits:
“I’m so happy I’m still playing. It’s been a long, wonderful journey and it all started as a junior world champion. It’s been great. I wouldn’t do it any differently. I’ve loved every minute.
“It was all very, very worthwhile, the sacrifice. We’ll see how much I’ve got left in the tank, but reaching 100 is definitely an absolute dream come true for me.”
He confirmed, along the way, that he would return to Dubai next year—his first firm commitment to 2020. But asked if that signalled the possibility of his trying to play the Olympics after surgery in 2016 ended his chances in Rio, he would not commit:
“No, still not. Don’t know how I’m going to qualify, to be honest. And if I do, I don’t know if I’m still playing. Still too far away for me. Yeah, I don’t know. I just don’t want my mind to go there. I think if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t… So we’ll really see how it’s going to play out.”
For now, he has got the monkey of ‘100’ off his back. His family was already packing today for their flight out tomorrow—indeed he was grateful for the distraction:
“I didn’t think of [the final] too much, to be quite honest, all day. I was very calm, very composed. At the same time, we’re getting ready to leave tomorrow. That always puts stress on the whole situation because we’re not just packing for one person.”
But he went on to reflect on what 100 meant in the whole scheme of things:
“I think this one has a deep satisfaction, an immediate one, because I know what it means. I like these type of numbers or records. A lot of people always emphasise all the Slams and all these things. I play on the ATP tour. This is where I’ve won so many of them. Been around for so long.
“I didn’t come here expecting I was going to win, to be quite honest. I hadn’t played since Australia. Just happy on all fronts how my game progressed, how well I played in the finals, on top of it winning the eighth, winning the 100th. So many magical things going on. Yeah, I’m very, very happy right now.”
And so are his multitude of fans, both in Dubai and around the world, at what seems a very satisfying number, and in a very appropriate place.