Miami Open 2019: ‘Entirely too good’ Roger Federer masters John Isner for title 101

Roger Federer beats John Isner in straight sets to win his 101st career title at the Miami Open

Roger Federer (Photo: Marianne Bevis)
Roger Federer (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

They may have been part of the oldest final in the Miami Open’s 35-year history: Roger Federer is 37 and John Isner is 33.

They may both be former champions: Federer three times, Isner once, the last two winners at the tournament’s exotic old venue on the Florida Keys.

And one of them would become the first ever champion at its vast new home, the Hard Rock Stadium.

Yet for two men with so many years on the tour, so many titles between them, and such enduring presences in the top 20—frequently, indeed, in the top 12—Federer and Isner had met remarkably few times on the tour, just seven in a professional span of more than 12 years.

They had not, aside from the differently structured Laver Cup, met at all in three and a half years, a win for the towering American on the indoor hard courts of Paris. They had only ever met only once in a final, a win for the Swiss on the outdoor hard courts of Indian Wells.

But here they were, playing for the first time since Isner had reached a Major semi-final and won a first Masters, the first time since he had qualified for the World Tour Finals, and the first time since he had joined Federer in becoming a father.

And here they were, playing for the first time since Federer had undergone his first surgery, since he had returned to No1—the oldest to do so—and since he had gone on to add three more Majors to his record 17 in the space of around 12 months.

Since that last meeting, Isner had, arguably, enjoyed the best years of his career, and a repeat victory in Miami would take him back to his career high of last summer, No8, and up to fourth on the Race to London board.

And since that last meeting, Federer had totted up his 100th title, was now into a record 50th Masters final, and should he win his fourth in Miami, he would rise to the top of that Race to London.

Impressive numbers all round, then, for the oldest ever Miami final.

But in the end, all those statistics could count for nought. Instead, it could all come down to two particular scenarios.

First, the Isner serve: He had fired down 98 aces, and had won nine tie-break sets, with his only other set sealed at 7-5. Second, the Federer serve: He had hit 38 aces, been broken only three times, and after dropping a set in his first match, had grown more impressive with every round, dropping just 16 games in his last three matches.

The three-time champion had, it seemed, begun to master the very different court laid in Miami—slow, lower bouncing, gritty—compared with the one in Indian Wells—also slow but with the dry, thin air making the ball fly.

Federer had already made the final in the desert, and he had now beaten tough competition—No13 Daniil Medvedev, No6 Kevin Anderson, No20 Denis Shapovalov—to reach the final in Miami, in one of the toughest back-to-back stretches in tennis. And that on top of winning his 100th in Dubai. That he had beaten a big server, a leftie one-hander, and a youthful baseliner in such short order promised problems for Isner.

And when Federer won the toss and chose to receive, taken in the context of those Isner statistics, it spoke of great Swiss confidence and not a little boldness. And it paid off.

A lob over the reach of the American’s 6ft 10in frame, a winner follow-up, and then a tense double fault by Isner, and Federer had break point. Rushed by the Swiss, Isner shanked and gave up the break in the opening game.

Federer dropped his first point on serve, but then swept through love hold after love hold. Not content with that, he ran Isner ragged, picking up the American’s serve, chipping returns to mid-court and with angle, forcing Isner in for a difficult follow-through.

From the baseline, too, Federer was in control, weaving from one wing to the other, chasing in to pick up short balls, and he broke again, 4-1. It was tactically ruthless, and combined with hardly an error from Federer, it forced another break to seal the set, 6-1, after just 24 minutes.

Federer’s dominance continued into the second set, a love hold to open, with thus far just one point dropped on serve. Isner upped his own tactics, began to use the serve and volley, and it certainly helped him stay in touch.

The American’s problem, however, was two-fold: His own serve has never been as potent a weapon against Federer as it has against many others. And Federer’s own accurate, varied, disguised serve has caused more men than Isner a problem—and the American never looked close to breaking.

When Isner called the physio for treatment to his ankle mid-set, that made a breakthrough look even more unlikely. Isner continued, but jarred his foot in a vain attempt to retrieve another winner from Federer, and called for more physio after another swift hold by the Swiss, 5-4. Clearly in pain, he mouthed to his box that he ‘could not move’. Would he retire? No, he was too classy for that.

He took to court to serve one more time, limping, struggling to get any fire in his serve, while Federer had to focus long enough to press his opponent into errors.

The last one came on match-point, a ball just long: Not the perfect way for the Swiss to win a 28th Masters title or notch up No101, and the celebration was restrained, the embrace warm.

But make no mistake. Even if Isner had held his form to the end of the match, here was a Federer operating at his tactical best, and playing with the accuracy and pace to put those tactics into practice. He needed only to come to the net a handful of times, depending on a different array of shot-making to keep his opponent out of his comfort-zone.

The Swiss made just seven errors in the match, did not drop a point on his first serve, lost only three points in total on serve. And it was done in 63 minutes.

Matches such as this, between men who have known one another for years and enjoyed mutual respect for the duration, bring their own memorable moments away from the heat of competition.

As the tournament set up its stage for the awards, Federer ambled across to Isner’s seat, leant against the water cabinet, and they chatted away, hands gesticulating, smiles on both sides. And Isner, who must have been heartbroken by the final circumstances, was generous in his response:

“You were entirely too good today, you were entirely too good this whole tournament, entirely too good your whole career. It’s incredible what you’re doing, we are so lucky to have you in the game. Just like James [Blake, former player and now tournament director] said: We all want you to keep playing and literally never retire.”

Well Federer has already played 20 matches this year—plus several more in Hopman Cup—and lost only two of them. He is the first man this season to win two titles, ending a streak of 19 winners from 19 events. And he appears to be enjoying everything about it as much as he did when he first played Miami, ranked 125, 20 years ago.

It may be more realistic to say that many of his victims over those two decades would not be unhappy to see the Swiss superstar hang up his racket, but based on his tennis in Miami, they will have to wait a bit longer yet.

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