When destiny calls, Roger Federer answers
Federer has flipped the script by defeating Nadal for the 4th straight time & completing his 3rd Sunshine Double, but did he have some help?
Do you believe in destiny? Is it possible that a metaphysical concept like fate can dictate what happens to us mortals inhabiting this earth? If you watched Roger Federer’s victory at the 2017 Miami Masters, you’d be tempted to think there was something else at play apart from the Swiss’ considerable skills.
Wait a minute though; did I just bracket Federer along with ‘mortals’? Clearly, I am not thinking straight in the aftermath of all that’s happened in the tennis world the last three months.
On a serious note though, it was hard not to detect a certain element of serendipity in Federer’s march to the third ‘Sunshine Double’ of his career. For starters, there was Rafael Nadal’s weirdly symmetrical record at the Miami Masters.
Since 2005, Nadal has reached the Miami final every third year – in 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014 and now, 2017. Before yesterday, he had also lost the Miami final every third year; twice to Novak Djokovic, once to Federer and once to Nikolay Davydenko.
When Nadal defeated Fabio Fognini to set up a title clash against either Federer or Nick Kyrgios, how many bookmakers would have been brave enough to bet that he would finally break his Miami ‘jinx’?
But even aside from that quirky stat, Federer himself had a pretty charmed run to the final. He looked out of sorts in his fourth round match against Roberto Bautista Agut, but somehow managed to scrape through in two tiebreakers.
Against Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinal, Federer faced two match points in the third set tiebreaker, one of which was on Berdych’s serve. But the Czech failed to get the simplest of forehands over the net, and lost that point. He then double faulted at 6-7 to give Federer one of the more relief-inducing wins of his career.
The semifinal against Kyrgios was one for the ages, with the quality of play being at an insanely high level throughout the match. But there too Federer was looking down the barrel in the third set tiebreaker. Kyrgios, who had served brilliantly all day, had two serves in his kitty at 5-4.
But as luck would have it, the infamously pro-Federer Miami crowd chose that moment to get involved – too involved – in the match once again. It was a routine rally that looked like it could have gone either way, but someone in the crowd yelled ‘Out!’ at a Kyrgios backhand that landed well inside the line. The Aussie got distracted and sent his subsequent forehand wide, and followed that up with a proper barrage of abuses in the direction of the errant caller.
But the damage had been done. On the very next point a clearly rattled Kyrgios – in an eery echo of Berdych's error the previous day – made a double fault, and Federer didn't need to be asked twice.
The ‘match of the year’ so far had been decided by the slimmest of margins, and Federer had his lucky stars and unruly fans to thank for it – at least partially.
The final against Nadal was more straightforward, but even there Federer had a bit of help along the way. The Spaniard had staved off two break points in the second set with some exhilarating back-to-the-wall play, and when Federer got to 30-30 at 4-4, not many expected him to get the job done. But the Swiss hit a backhand that caught the tape and just dribbled over; even though Nadal got to it in time, he couldn't do much with the lunging reply he was forced to hit.
Federer, ever the opportunist, was waiting right at the net for precisely the kind of shot that Nadal hit. He calmly flipped a crosscourt lob volley over the Spaniard's head, and the Sunshine Double was all but sealed.
So should I just go ahead and say it? That Federer was lucky to win his third Miami tournament, 26th Masters trophy, and 91st career title?
I can already hear the furious voices of indignation in response to that. But to be honest, those voices are in my head too.
For many years now Federer has given casual fans the impression of being too good to be true. Many people look at him as a freakish talent, a uniquely blessed athlete who couldn't possibly have failed at tennis even if he tried. Those magical backhand flicks and miraculous stab volleys that somehow end up as winners? Surely that's plain dumb luck; the result of being far more privileged – perhaps unfairly – than his peers.
For years I have tired countering that argument – both in external discussions and inside my head – by suggesting that if a player can pull off seemingly impossible shots regularly, maybe they're not so impossible for him after all. Maybe those aren't flukes, but a matter of habit (and countless hours of practice).
Still, those shots weren't that frequent, even for Federer. Back in 2012, a half-volley backhand winner struck by the Swiss was considered a rarity, and the centre-piece of a must-see highlights reel – like the shot that he hit against Andy Murray in the World Tour Finals.
But for the 2017 avatar of Federer, such shots are not rare anymore; he's hitting a bunch of them practically every match.
The half-volley forehand winner he reflexed after a 25-shot rally in the Australian Open final against Nadal was the appetizer; a sign of things to come. It looked like the shot of the year at the time, and made commentators everywhere scream in wonder and amazement.
The Miami tournament saw Federer raise the bar even higher with his improbable shot-making. While his level of play in Miami overall was lower than that in Melbourne and Indian Wells, his propensity to feature in the ‘hot shot of the day’ video was just as strong.
There was the dropshot-out-of-nowhere against Berdych that was made even more surreal by the Czech's reaction to it. Yeah, 99.99% of the people in the world would have had their hands on their hips with a bewildered look on their face too, if they had been outwitted like that.
Against Kyrgios, in the first set, there was the stunning return into the corner followed by the casually flicked backhand winner down the line on set point down. That brought the house down and then some (the return can be seen at the 0:15 mark in the video below).
There was also the Houdini-style hoodoo in the third set tie-breaker against Kyrgios. On the first point of the breaker, Federer threw his racquet for a backhand half-volley that somehow went past Kyrgios for a winner. And with Federer serving at 3-4, the Aussie blasted a 118mph forehand pass but could only look on in despair as the ball was calmly volleyed into the open court for a winner.
Just when you thought nothing could top that, Federer insisted on unfurling some more witchcraft in the final. At 3-2 in the first set he sent a half-volley forehand winner past a hard-charging Nadal, that left us all with our mouths hanging open.
And finally, just because the backhand winner has become THE tennis fashion statement of 2017, Federer gave us one more glimpse of the previously-untapped prowess of his one-hander. At the end of a rally that seemed to have slipped out of his grasp, he flicked a nonchalant down-the-line winner that even Nadal's speed couldn't catch up to.
So is it good fortune when Federer's instinctive half-volleys end up as winners? Not from where I'm looking. The line call shouted by the crowd against Kyrgios was good fortune; the backhand half-volley winner to start the tiebreak wasn't. If Federer hadn't made that shot, he wouldn't have been within one point of Kyrgios towards the end, and he wouldn't have been able to capitalize on the Aussie's double fault.
The fact that all these shots came in the space of three matches should tell us that it wasn't merely luck that took Federer to the title. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the Swiss has dramatically changed his court positioning this year; he always took the ball earlier than the other players, but now he's gone so far up that he is practically half-volleying everything.
Federer has taught us a lot of things over the years. Now, at the age of 35, he's teaching us how to make your own luck. He's showing us that if you hang around long enough, both in a match and in your career, good things will come to you. Great things, even.
Of course, your life becomes a tad easier if, while you're hanging around, you also display an unswerving commitment to attack at all times. And it also helps if you've got the hand skills and court sense of Federer.
Yes, I realize that that's far easier said than done. But if we've worked hard enough and need just one final push towards the finish line, we can always ask destiny for some help. As Federer has shown in 2017, that fickle mistress is always pretty happy to oblige.