March 31, 2019
Roger Federer played like a man who may not have given up on catching Jimmy Connors after all.
Those 109 Connors titles appeared too many at the start of the year. Maybe they still are.
But for Federer, it seems, nothing is impossible. The great man has us wondering once more.
‘I’m so happy right now,’ Federer said simply.
Not all of March was like that.
Federer didn’t like being beaten in three sets by Dominic Thiem at Indian Wells.
To have had a 101st title – and a big one at that – within his grasp in the desert, and then to let it slip was exasperating for him.
And although he took it on the chin, having admitted to some frustration, he felt that defeat keenly. And he used it superbly in Miami.
The world’s favourite player summoned a ruthlessness rarely seen, even in the annals of Federer’s clinical finishing. The Miami final was done in just over an hour.
Isner, remember, has one of the greatest serves in the game.
So to take the first set 6-1 in less than 25 minutes required something truly special.
With the youthful agility and lightning reactions that have been a trademark of Federer’s Miami campaign this year, the 37-year-old dismantled that vaunted Isner serves with a beautiful cruelty.
It began when Roger opted to face the giant’s big guns in the very first game.
Two break points passed him by, then the Swiss turned the screw again with a pass and Isner crumbled.
‘It was a dream start,’ Federer admitted.’Maybe I broke too many times in the first set. I felt like I used too many jokers.’
Sure, the younger man had his problems, including that early double fault. But Roger applied so much pressure that he left the American with nowhere to go.
And when a player’s game is so serve-dependent, it is hard to find a plan B.
Digging deep to harness some poise and deliver the more usual accuracy, Isner worked hard to turn the tide in the second.
When Federer had a glimmer of hope to break once more, Isner’s serve twice worked a treat and soon the set was nicely balanced at 3-3.
Was the comeback on? Perhaps. But Isner slipped behind again, looking troubled, even apologising to Federer for needing treatment on his left foot.
Maybe it was Roger who should have apologised for firing all those huge shots at the big man’s feet, to prompt so many desperate twists and turns.
Was it wear and tear after a long, hard tournament, or the physical and mental stress of facing the sport’s master in the showpiece?
Whatever the reason, Isner, no spring chicken himself at 33, was fighting for survival. He is said to have voiced fears of a stress fracture of the foot.
Federer already suspected that the ferocity of the battle, combined with the intensity of the tournament itself, had inflicted significant damage on his opponent.
He revealed later: ‘I knew something was not right, the way he was moving not well. But I couldn’t let that affect my game. Of course, I hope for John it’s nothing serious.’
Ever the likeable sportsman, Isner insisted on seeing the match out to give Federer his deserved moment of triumph.
Pretty soon it was over, 6-1, 6-4. Mentally and physically, the older man had faired better. Two titles already in 2019.
A 28th Masters title in his 50th Masters final.
The most intriguing statistic now is this: 109 plays 101…and counting. Why would Federer think of retirement? That Jimmy Connors record isn’t safe yet.
Meanwhile, Ashleigh Barty, the woman we tipped as an outsider for Australian Open glory, showed all her quality and fighting prowess in Miami.
She overcame a 1-3 defeat in the opening set to run down Karolina Pliskova and take her biggest title yet 7-6 (7-1), 6-3.
The jaded Czech never recovered fully from that one-sided tie-break and being broken early in the second.
Barty, the 2011 Wimbledon junior champion, only came back to tennis from cricket in 2016. She will be delighted with her fourth tournament success.
Barty is still only 22 and her confidence will now match her extraordinary fighting spirit.
Incredibly, however, the first 14 titles of 2019 have all been won by different women.
The WTA tour is so unpredictable. In men’s tennis, on the other hand, you can be more confident of one thing.
Wherever titles are to be won, Roger Federer will be there or thereabouts.
And he will be 38 in August. Wonderful, isn’t it?