March 19, 2018
Roger Federer must have realised his winning streak couldn’t last forever. That didn’t make it any easier for anyone to digest, the superstar of world tennis included.
There was trouble under the stubble. Things felt weird behind the new beard. Federer’s customary composure was nowhere to be seen.
Del Potro had come up with a new ending to the story and he had forgotten to alert his fellow lead actor to the unforseen twists that led to his inspired 6-4, 6-7 (8-10), 7-6 (7-2) triumph.
The stunned silence of the Indian Wells crowd during the decisive third-set tie-break said it all.
Surely the great man wasn’t going to fall to the brave but inconsistent South American? Not after enjoying match points while serving earlier in the set, not after saving one himself in the second?
Federer victories are a matter of destiny, the script cannot be rewritten, they are meant to be. That’s how it seemed after seventeen straight wins and an imperious start to 2018.
Yet every so often we are reminded that the Swiss is only human. We see nerves creep in, mistakes made, and a giant of the sport realise that it might not be his day after all.
So it was in that final breaker, when his shots looped long, or the geometry was wrong, or a glaring double fault was the consequence of the uncharacteristic unease he felt.
Del Potro is a popular man too, but no one is universally loved quite like Federer. And in the absence of a significant body of fans from Argentina, it was the silent sound of surprise that drifted across the American desert, unnerving in itself, perhaps.
Imagine the expectation, the weight on Federer’s shoulders every time he steps out. Maybe if it hadn’t seemed like the entire crowd was willing him to win, almost demanding as much, it would have been easier.
As it turned out, the crucial tie-break wasn’t even close, Del Potro turned an early squeeze into an unbreakable stranglehold, raced to five points, then 6-1, then 7-2.
And so suddenly he was staring up at the blue sky, high beyond his shocked audience, taking in his achievement.
A first Masters title. And a victory over a seemingly unbeatable opponent, something he had managed before, even since the immaculate Federer found his remarkable renaissance. But still we couldn’t believe it. Neither, it seemed could the winner.
‘To do it against Roger makes it extra special, it was so hard after I didn’t close out with the match point in the second set, but I kept fighting and played a great match in the end.’
So he did. And Juan Martin may also have got under Federer’s skin more than a little, as he complained to the umpire about noisy supporters cheering for the favourite, at what the underdog deemed to be the wrong time, just as he was about to serve.
Federer considered the fuss unnecessary, all part of the American drama, and he too let these feelings be known at times.
Perhaps that is why his embrace for his conqueror at the net, when all was said and done, seemed to lack the customary warmth. Or maybe Roger was just unaccustomed to the bitter taste of defeat, and took a moment to adjust to what had happened.
‘Well done, you were the better player today, enjoy the moment,’ Federer said soon afterwards. There was sporting congratulation at play here, but was there also just a hint of “I’ll get you next time”?
Federer fans shouldn’t be unduly concerned. It may even be a blessing is disguise, this end to the winning streak, this recognition that the super-hero is also a mere mortal.
Roger may be given food for thought as he contemplates the looming clay court season and whether or nor to participate. What will give him fresh zip and a pure sense of joy once more?
Would a break do him more good than a tilt at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal’s kingdom? Maybe so, but Federer will weigh it up and he usually comes to the right decision these days.
What Roger will certainly aim to do is be at his very best for Wimbledon, his own kingdom, the place where he has his very best chance to make it 21 Slams.
That opportunity was no less open to Federer for what happened at Indian Wells.
It’s just that a defeat was so unusual that it was greeted as an impostor. Greeted that way by all except for Del Potro, with his pink footwear and pink, sun-burnt nose.
As he stretched out his arms, gazed at the heavens and closed his eyes, Juan Martin was clearly determined to savour every moment.
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