Miami Open 2019: It takes all sorts, but Roger Federer serves up a winning combo again
Roger Federer is through to the round of 16 at the Miami Open, where he will face Daniil Medvedev
If ever a day of men’s tennis summed up the diversity and variety of players and styles that populate this sport, it was the 16 who aimed to reach the fourth round of the Miami Open on this Monday.
There was age and experience in the shape of three-time champion, 37-year-old Roger Federer and in a blaze-of-glory run from the retiring David Ferrer, currently ranked 155, formerly ranked No3, and turning 37 a week after beating young-gun No2 seed Alexander Zverev.
That second-round reminder of the fighting heart of the veteran Spaniard threw into the mix a 15-year age gap, and Ferrer played another 21-year-old in the third round, Frances Tiafoe. But it also demonstrated the physical differences between the men who succeed with a racket in their hands.
Ferrer is 5ft 9ins, Zverev 6ft 6ins. At the other end of this half of the draw stands the 6ft 8ins figure of Kevin Anderson, in the middle of the draw, the towering 6ft 11ins of Reilly Opelka. As Federer said of his first opponent, the 5ft 9ins Radu Albot, who tested the Swiss to the limits in three sets:
“I was impressed. I have a lot of respect for those types of players who don’t have the size, have to find a different way to win. He’s a great, great player. I was impressed.”
But never mind the span of ages, sizes and career trajectories—and some switch to the main-tour straight from the junior circuit, while others take the college route to pursue success at a slower rate. There are attackers, baseliners, aggressive baseliners, counter-punchers, and more recently, a renewed flourishing of the forward-moving game. There is, quite simply, more than one way to skin a cat, whether on slow hard courts, fast indoor courts, grass or clay.
Take the five men playing with a single-handed backhand among these 16.
No29 seed Grigor Dimitrov, with a vast sweep of a single-hander, was too inclined to stay back, despite being willing to come forward in his youthful surge up the ranks. He paid the price dearly against the younger Australian Jordan Thompson, who countered with pace, variety, and not a little ability when brought to the net.
An exchange of breaks in the first set was followed by another break from Thompson for the first set, 7-5. More exchanges of serve in the second kept the match tight, but the Aussie continued to play the more aggressive tactics, made fewer errors, and broke again for the match, 7-5.
He will next have to find a solution to the huge serving of the calm, focused Anderson, who beat the more volatile, unpredictable Joao Sousa. Anderson thumped down 13 aces in his 6-4, 7-6(6) win, and saved the only break point he faced.
The youngest of the one-handers, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov, were building success on an aggressive game backed by kicking serves, net-attacks, and a combination of power and angle from inside the baseline.
Their flair, boldness and energy were earning huge followings, but also considerable success on the court. Tsitsipas, semi-finalist in Australia, winner in Marseille, runner-up in Dubai, was playing in Miami inside the top 10, age just 20. He took on fellow one-hander, Leonardo Mayer, a man 11 years his senior who had earned all his five finals—with two titles—on clay.
The winner would play either 19-year-old Shapovalov, seeded 20, playing with the left-handed version of a single-hander, or the aggressive baseliner, 21-year-old Andrey Rublev, ranked 31 a year ago but since then a victim to a back injury that saw him at a current 99.
Later in the schedule, the veteran Ferrer would also take on one of the improving band of #NextGen players, the power-packed 21-year-old No28 seed Frances Tiafoe. Even playing against an American, Ferrer would likely be the fans’ favourite, but Tiafoe made the quarters of the Australian Open, and put up strong resistance in his second-round win over fellow #NextGen player Miomir Kecmanovic.
The winner would play either David Goffin or Marco Cecchinato, men separated by just two years in age, four seeding points, and with one apiece in precious meetings. It brought together two fleet and nimble players able to generate variety of spin and angle, and switch from defence to attack in a moment.
But the oldest man left in the draw, Federer, was perhaps the most adept at drawing on all the styles. A single-hander who loved to take the initiative, take to the net, be proactive. He did not have the huge serve of Anderson but had enough precision, disguise and slice that made it almost as effective. He could switch tactics from offensive to defensive, throw in drops, and create volley winners from all parts of the net.
He had lately won his 100th title in Dubai, and reached the final in Indian Wells, and in the 20 years since he had first played in Miami, he had accumulated three titles and 51 match-wins. But this venue, this court were new and different, slow and high-bouncing, and this latest match had been hindered by heavy rain.
And his opponent, though one of the lowest ranked among Monday’s 16, was a far better player than that suggested. Filip Krajinovic was ranked 26 less than a year ago, but had been limited to fewer than 30 matches last year, just 14 wins, due to foot and hand injuries.
The Serb pushed the Swiss to three sets in their last meeting in Basel in October, came through qualifying to reach the fourth round in Indian Wells, and beat Stan Wawrinka in a third-set tie-break on Saturday to take his year’s run to 11-4.
And the tactically astute Serb must have watched Federer’s opening game against Radu Albot. Federer had a quick chance to break in the second game, but could not convert his chance, and then a slew of errors, including a rash wide forehand, saw him broken to love in the third game.
It was as slow and uncertain a start from the Swiss as it had been in that Albot match. He had conceded a quick break in that one, too, to lose the first set, but dug in to make a late break in the second set, and then began to find better form to close out the third.
This time, however, Federer got an immediate break back through an eight-minute cat-and-mouse exchange of five deuces and four break points. Krajinovic was using similar tactics to Albot, penetrating wide to the backhand on this high-bouncing court and opening for a forehand winner.
Federer got another chance to break in the eighth game, but again the Serb came up with impressive resistance, stepping in with fearless strikes down both lines.
This had the makings of a tie-break, though Federer faced a break point at 5-5 that threatened otherwise. He snuffed out the chance with two aces, and promptly turned on the attack in the next game, firing a forehand winner to break for the set, 7-5.
He rode his momentum into the start of the second set, and got a hard-fought break in the second game when Krajinovic netted a drop attempt.
And that would be enough, as Federer pressed home with his serve improving all the time. He closed out the match with a flourish, three aces—taking the tally to 14—but a fourth was an inch long. No matter, he held to love, 35 winners to the good, 6-3.
Federer will next meet No13 seed Daniil Medvedev or that fearsomely tall Opelka, which was locked at a tie-break set apiece, and headed to a third set with 30 aces between them. So irrespective of the result, it would pose an entirely different challenge to the veteran champion.
Such, though, is the excitement and unpredictability of this most demanding of sports.