Federer keeps getting better

Not surprisingly, Roger Federer, the GOAT, boasts a terrific record against this century’s mega-servers — 21-3 against Andy Roddick, 13-1 against Ivo Karlovic, 11-3 against Milos Raonic, and 6-2 against John Isner.

During the trophy ceremony, John Isner thanked as much as praised Roger Federer. “It’s absolutely incredible what you’re doing,” Isner said. “We’re so lucky to have you in this game, and we all want you to keep playing and literally never retire.”   -  AFP

Sports fans and the media aren’t the only ones who worship at the altar of Roger Federer. Fellow players have idolised him for years. John Isner once co-ran a Facebook page titled “If tennis is a religion, Roger Federer is God.” And, in interviews, Denis Shapovalov often refers to Federer as “my idol.”

Whether it’s a 30-something like Isner or a Next-Genner like teenaged Shapovalov, it’s never a good idea to idolise your opponent. Stefanos Tsitsipas somehow managed to overcome his ambivalence when he upset Federer at the Australian Open in January. Afterwards, the 20-year-old Greek famously said, “My idol became my rival.”

Making that fraught transition from facing an idol to visualising him as just another rival proved too difficult, though, for both Shapovalov and Isner at the Miami Open.

Shapovalov, 19, along with Felix Auger-Aliassime and surprise Indian Wells champion Bianca Andreescu, both 18, abound with talent and will likely give Canadian tennis its “Greatest Generation” during the 2020s. In 2017, the shaggy-haired blond nicknamed Shapo was selected both ATP Newcomer of the Year and Most Improved Player of the Year.

The accolades resulted mainly from Shapovalov’s bravura performance at the 2017 Canadian Open. As a wild card ranked No. 143, he upset Argentine star Juan Martin del Potro and then shocked superstar Rafael Nadal. That made the 18-year-old Shapovalov the youngest ATP Masters 1000 quarterfinalist and semifinalist since the Masters series started in 1990.

At the recent Miami Open, Shapo staved off two other highly ambitious Next Genners to earn the right to play Federer. He edged eighth-seeded Tsitsipas in a riveting 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 fourth-round slugfest by playing bolder, more aggressive tennis in the decisive tiebreaker. Then, in a hard-fought 6-7, 6-4, 6-2 quarterfinal, his swerving lefty serve and topspin forehand gradually overpowered 28th-seeded Frances Tiafoe. Meanwhile, Federer routinely disposed of sixth-seeded Kevin Anderson and 13th-seeded Daniil Medvedev to book his semifinal spot.

Sounding a little too reverential, Shapovalov said, “It’s a dream come true to play him.”

Before the much-anticipated match between the GOAT and the young buck, ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, a former US Davis Cup captain, predicted, “This kid is destined for greatness.” When Shapovalov would achieve that greatness or when Federer would finally show his age were the intriguing questions. Their 18-year age gap was the biggest ever in a Masters 1000 semifinal.

The inexperience and impatience of youth betrayed Shapovalov from the first point when he nervously shanked a backhand. Despite eight unforced errors, he somehow held serve in the opening game. It was a brief reprieve, though. Federer easily broke his serve twice to surge ahead 4-1. Putting on a clinic, the Swiss master cruised to the first set, 6-2.

Shapovalov shook off most of his nerves in the second set, but it didn’t make much difference because he was still wildly inconsistent at times. Perhaps he was trying to impress his longtime idol. Perhaps he doesn’t yet understand the critical importance of playing percentage tennis. As Patrick McEnroe pointed out, “He has to pull back and play solid, meat-and-potatoes tennis.” Translation: Hyper-aggressive tennis works when the percentages are in your favour; when they’re not, play the safer shot to avoid unforced errors.

Playing what Federer called “a tactical match,” he probed for weaknesses, mostly targeting Shapovalov’s vulnerable one-handed backhand. Its ultra-long backswing produces plenty of mishits, particularly on serve returns and shots struck on the dead run. Two such errors and a double fault gave Federer a service break for 2-1 in the second set. That was all Fed needed because, aside from erasing two break points at 15-40 in the previous game, he lost only one point in his last four service games.

Sounding a little too reverential, Denis Shapovalov, before the semifinal against Federer, said, “It’s a dream come true to play him.”   -  AP

 

On match point, the supremely versatile Federer served and volleyed and nonchalantly put away a forehand volley for a 6-2, 6-4 victory. That style, though rare today, was how Federer played during his first Miami Open in 1999 before Shapovalov was born. Amazingly, Fed won the first of his four Miami titles 17 years ago.

“I play very differently now than when I won here in 2002,” Federer told ESPN. “I’m excited about the transition I was able to make. With an older body, you move differently. You see it with Rafa [Nadal]. He doesn’t chase down balls the same way he used to. So you adjust to that. Do you pull the trigger [to go for winners] earlier or at all? You are being more selective. I like the whole process of adjusting throughout your career.”

Then the Professor added something every tournament player should take to heart: “In tennis, you can always make endless improvement.”

Shapovalov, the Student, marvelled, “He’s got every shot mastered. When he needs a shot, he’s going to go for it and he’s going to make it. I don’t think he has any weaknesses.”

Battle of the Ages

In the other Battle of the Ages semifinal, 33-year-old Isner took on Auger-Aliassime. The seventh-seeded Isner nipped Roberto Bautista-Agut in a 7-6, 7-6 quarterfinal after the tenacious Spanish veteran upset top-seeded Novak Djokovic 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. Auger-Aliassime qualified and then defeated three seeds, including 11th-seeded Borna Coric, another Next Genner, 7-6, 6-2.

The 6’4”, boyishly handsome Auger-Aliassime, who shares the same August 8 birthday as Federer, boasts Federesque athleticism, versatility and charisma. He’s also far better than Federer was at the same age. But, like his good friend Shapovalov, FAA (fastest athlete around) is still a work in progress.

Serving for the first set against Isner at 5-4, FAA nervously double faulted three times to break himself. In the subsequent tiebreaker, FAA flinched again — with another double fault and then an unforced forehand error on the final point — to go down 7-3.

The second set bizarrely duplicated the first set as FAA served for it, this time at 5-3. And, despite the loud cheers of partisan fans, he blew it again with a double fault and an injudicious swinging volley from deep in the court. Once again, the far more experienced Isner remained poised and belted two aces and three more unreturnable serves to take the tiebreaker 7-4 and the match 7-6, 7-6.

“It’s a chance you can’t miss, serving two times for the set. Just terrible,” lamented Auger-Aliassime. “It’s like I caught a virus or something. I couldn’t put a second serve in anymore. That’s just very tough to swallow.” To his great credit, an hour later Auger-Aliassime was practising his serve to correct his errant toss.

Conversely, Isner, who had yet to drop a set in five matches and won all nine tiebreakers, said, “I’m just finding myself pretty calm in those [tiebreaker] situations. I’m definitely playing my best tennis when I’ve been in that situation this week, no doubt.”

Even so, the 6’10” Isner doesn’t exactly exude confidence. He once confided that if not for his booming serve, he wouldn’t even be on the ATP Tour, let alone be a top 10 player. And before the Miami Open, he said he doubted he would retain his 2018 title. Sometimes, when heaping praise on Federer, Isner sounded like he was more eager to watch the Swiss magician play than to actually play him.

“It’s a chance you can’t miss, serving two times for the set. Just terrible,” lamented Auger-Aliassime, after losing to Isner.   -  AFP

 

Before the final, Federer joked about Isner’s monster serve. Comparing himself to a football goalkeeper confronting a penalty kick, he said, “I know what to expect. On Sunday I’ll be the goalie and try my very best.” Still, he felt so confident that, after winning the toss, he chose to receive. Guess what? The Mighty Fed immediately broke Isner’s serve when Isner shanked a forehand.

Not surprisingly, the GOAT boasts a terrific record against this century’s mega-servers — 21-3 against Andy Roddick, 13-1 against Ivo Karlovic, 11-3 against Milos Raonic, and 6-2 against Isner. He studies their patterns and predilections to determine where to position himself and how to return their serves. And so, reading Isner’s 134-mph-average first serves like he had mental telepathy, Federer defused them to break Isner’s serve yet two more times and grab the first set 6-1. Meanwhile, he held his own serve imperiously, surrendering just three points.

Despite an increasingly painful left foot that forced Isner to hobble between points, he fought valiantly in the second set. As he walked out to serve at 4-5, the appreciative spectators cheered. But struggling to move for balls and serving at barely 100 mph, Isner quickly lost his serve and the match 6-1, 6-4.

During the trophy ceremony, the admiring Isner thanked as much as praised Federer. “It’s absolutely incredible what you’re doing,” Isner said. “We’re so lucky to have you in this game, and we all want you to keep playing and literally never retire.”

Federer’s Miami title (he also won Dubai in February) made him the first man or woman to win multiple titles in 2019. Order had been restored.

When the GOAT was asked about Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime and the other young, rising stars, he graciously said, “It’s great for the game because they will carry the sport when we’re long gone and we’ll be sitting on the couch watching those guys slug it out. It’ll be a joy to watch because not only are they great, great players, but they’re good people, too.”

Just don’t expect to see the ageless Federer on that couch anytime soon.

Barty crashes party

Ashleigh Barty’s “brand of tennis” is epitomised by versatility. She displayed it masterfully at the Miami Open’s new home, Hard Rock Stadium inside the Miami Dolphins’ stadium.   -  AFP

To understand Ashleigh Barty and her circuitous journey, one only need know the two phrases she often uses: “embrace the occasion” and “play my brand of tennis.”

To the surprise of many, winning the 2011 Wimbledon girls’ title at age 15 and reaching three Grand Slam doubles finals in 2013 neither made Barty happy nor jumpstarted her budding pro career. Instead, the pressure of great expectations burned her out, and Barty quit the WTA Tour at 17. A self-described “homebody,” the Australian quickly adapted her superb athleticism to become an all-rounder for the Brisbane Heat professional cricket team in the 2015-16 Women’s Big Bash League.

After she won the 2019 Miami Open, Barty recalled that “enjoyable time in my life.” She went on to say, “It was a time that I think I found myself a little bit more as a person, and I met an amazing group of girls and a new circle of friends, I suppose. But I think tennis was always my calling.”

When a more mature and relaxed Barty returned to the pro tour in July 2016, she embraced the challenge as never before. She also parlayed her formidable doubles skills to develop into an “all-rounder” in singles.

Ranked a career-high No. 15 by the end of 2018, Barty accelerated her progress this season. At Sydney, she defeated No. 1 Simona Halep, No. 9 Kiki Bertens, No. 12 Elise Mertens and 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko. She then made the Australian Open quarterfinals and sparked Australia to a 3-2 Fed Cup road victory over the United States.

Barty’s “brand of tennis” is epitomised by versatility. She displayed it masterfully at the Miami Open’s new home, Hard Rock Stadium inside the Miami Dolphins’ stadium. After she upset No. 7 Kiki Bertens and No. 3 Petra Kvitova in three setters and then No. 5 Karolina Pliskova 7-6 (1), 6-3 in the final, Barty elaborated: “I have always tried to bring as much variety onto the court as possible. It’s always about trying to neutralise what your opponent’s doing. There was a bit of a phase in women’s tennis where big power and first strikers were getting on top of rallies early. But the physicality in tennis has grown, which has allowed more players to neutralise off that big first ball and work their way into points.”

Power players captured 61 of the first 64 majors this century though counterpunchers Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens temporarily reversed the trend before hard-hitting Naomi Osaka grabbed the last two majors. Bianca Andreescu, the recent Indian Wells champion, and Barty have shown a Third Way works just fine. Their throwback style — deploying a wide range of shots and tactics — evokes memories of eclectic stylist Evonne Goolagong, the 1970s Australian great. (Coincidentally, both Barty and Goolagong are part aboriginal.)

The Miami final appeared like a David and Goliath battle, pitting the 5’5” Barty against the 6’1” Pliskova. But Barty was armed with far more than a slingshot. For starters, she brought the best serve by a short woman since 5’5-3/4” Justine Henin, who won seven majors. With perfect serve technique and Federer-like disguise, Barty won 86 percent of her first-serve points and bashed a career-high 15 aces. Putative powerhouse Pliskova, who led the WTA Tour in aces during 2015–17 and leads this year with 183, mustered just six.

“She has a different game than the other girls,” Pliskova said. “She understands the game so well.” Besides a potent serve, the unpredictable Barty frequently changes pace to disrupt opponents’ rhythm and timing. While her two-handed backhand is a liability, her one-handed, slice backhand is a strength. It especially bedevils six-footers like Bertens, Kvitova and Pliskova with extremely low-bouncing shots way below their strike zone. The rest of the Barty Brand features adroit volleying, tenacious defence, pinpoint accuracy, diabolical drop shots, and clever tactics that make everything mesh beautifully.

Like Henin, Barty is a superlative athlete. Just before the Miami final, she kicked an Australian football around, Aussie style, dribbled it around, soccer style, then picked up and threw an American football. Even though Barty golfs infrequently, she has a very respectable 10 handicap. “She could be great at any sport,” said tennis legend Chris Evert.

Unlike Ashleigh Barty who embraces the challenge, Karolina Pliskova can be an indifferent competitor. When the going gets tough, she sometimes doesn’t get going. She quits.   -  AFP

Though far less athletic, the long-legged Pliskova reached the 2016 US Open final and briefly ranked No. 1 in mid-2017. She started this season fast, winning the Brisbane tournament and boasts an impressive 21-4 record.

At the Miami Open, Pliskova overpowered fast-rising teenager Marketa Vondrousova 6-3, 6-4 in the quarters and No. 2 Simona Halep 7-5, 6-1 in the semis. A victory over Barty would have propelled the 27-year-old Czech to No. 2 in the world.

But unlike Barty who embraces the challenge, Pliskova can be an indifferent competitor. When the going gets tough, she sometimes doesn’t get going. She quits. After Barty conjured a nifty drop shot winner to lead 2-1 in the tiebreaker, the slow-footed Pliskova seemed deflated. Seizing the opportunity, Barty belted a forehand winner and an ace for 4-1. Three Pliskova errors gave Barty the 7-1 tiebreaker and the first set.

During the changeover, Conchita Martinez, Pliskova’s coach, implored her to keep fighting, saying, “You’re so close. If your legs move faster, your arms will move faster. I know you can win this.”

Pliskova managed to stave off four break points in the gruelling, 20-point, opening game of the second set before a careless unforced backhand error gave Barty the service break. On several occasions after that, the sluggish, defeatist Pliskova didn’t even run for Barty’s shots.

“If this were a match [only] about attitude, it would be over by now,” rightly criticised Evert, renowned for her steely competitiveness. “If Pliskova wants to win a Grand Slam title, she has to change her attitude.”

In the past, Martinez has chided Pliskova for giving up and not chasing balls in matches and practices. After this final, Pliskova said she was “tired, super tired,” but many players feel exhausted late in matches and still try their utmost. Furthermore, the 79-degree heat and 51 per cent humidity weren’t debilitating; and Pliskova didn’t play doubles, whereas Barty made the doubles semis.

The physically fit and mentally tough Barty broke Pliskova at love to capture the most prestigious title of her rapidly ascending career. With just a fist pump and a smile, the understated Barty celebrated modestly, like the great Australian champions of yesteryear. No longer a teen phenom but still only 22, Barty would love to join fellow countrywomen Goolagong and Margaret Court in the pantheon of tennis greats. She knows this time of unprecedented parity — different women have won the first 14 tournaments this year — could not be more propitious.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” she said. “The level has evened out a lot, and the depth has grown over the last few years. Everyone in the draw has a legitimate chance of winning the tournament, and you try to make the most of it.”

Although Osaka still rules the roost, Barty, who now ranks No. 9, likes her chances against anyone on the other side of the net. “I feel like when I play my best, I’m good enough to match it with the very best in the world,” she said.

Barty’s best is good enough to beat the very best, too. Her crowd-pleasing brand of all-court tennis, athleticism, and pluck proved that in Miami. As Barty said, “It’s been a hell of a week!”