INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—When people asked me before the men’s final who I was picking, my answer was, “Federer will have his work cut out for him.” I thought Federer was the strong favorite to win, but that the story of the match would be how, and when, and how long it would take, for him to find the one key point that would get him that win. It didn’t matter that Federer was the guy with 18 Masters titles and Isner was making his Masters final debut. It didn’t even matter whether Federer played the superior match. As Novak Djokovic can attest, if you can’t win that one over-the-hump point against Isner, you aren’t going to win.
But there were signs early that this wasn’t quite the same Isner that we saw yesterday. In the third game, he smacked a forceful backhand to earn two break points. Before the match, his coach, Craig Boynton, said that Isner’s plan was, essentially, to grip and rip, and it looked like it was going to pay dividends right away. And then, Isner gripped . . . but he didn’t rip. He would eventually have three break points, and he would play them, by his own admission, too passively. Instead of “letting it fly,” as he had against Djokovic, Isner stepped back and settled for backhand slices. That wasn’t his game plan, or his game. They floated out and Federer held.
Still, passive or proactive, Isner was tough enough to force Federer deep into a first-set tiebreaker before the third seed found his over-the-hump point. Very deep: The crucial shot came at 7-7, when Isner let a Federer half-lob, half-pass float past his racquet and onto the baseline. Federer ended the set a minute later with a service winner.
“It could have gone either way in the tiebreaker,” Isner said. “That backhand pass, lob, whatever it was, that was obviously huge and it landed on the line. A little bit unlucky there, but I’m not complaining. I had a lot of things go my way this week.”
The second set was routine by comparison, but it did contain one bit of tactical mastery from Federer. At 3-3, he hit two short slices that forced Isner forward. On the first, Federer backed up and flipped an inside-out forehand pass for a winner. On the second, he redirected a backhand up the line for another winning pass. The big man, after bending but not breaking all week, was finally broken.
“I’m definitely not content,” Isner said afterward, with conviction. He sounds like his appetite has been whetted by his run here. “I want to get to more finals like this, this big, and I want to play my best in them.”
Isner will, more likely than not, get back to those finals. For those looking for a player to put a chink in the Big 4’s collective armor, he’s been your man in 2012, and he'll continue to be—nobody is safe from a guy who can make any match come down to a single point. Isner’s serve and competitive smarts should give him more staying power at the top than his countryman Mardy Fish has shown. Isner has, beneath the hat and the baby face, a killer instinct. He just couldn’t make it work for him against Djokovic and Federer on back-to-back afternoons. Live by the 9-7 breaker one day, die by it the next.
As for Federer, there was a lot of talk immediately after his win about how good he has been since last year’s U.S. Open. He’s won six of eight events and has easily been the No. 1 player during that stretch. Let’s start by saying, as Federer was careful to say today, that Djokovic remains No. 1 in the world by a ways, both because of his ranking points over the last 12 months, and because he has won four of the last five majors, including the only one played in 2012. The period from the Open until now also happens to include the indoor season, when Federer traditionally excels. Moreoever, twice this week Federer himself cautioned against taking the short-term view when assessing a player’s results. There are still two months, and a lot of clay, before we get to the next Grand Slam.
Still, Indian Wells was a big one for Federer, and it should reverberate. He won here, on slow hard courts, for the first time since his glory year of 2006. He overcame an illness and gutted out two close matches over younger players, Milos Raonic and Thomaz Bellucci. He held his nerve through a crucial, erratic tiebreaker against the hottest player of the week, Isner. Most important, he beat Rafael Nadal in straight sets for the second time in three meetings, and the first time on an outdoor hard court in seven—yes, seven—years. Nadal has long held the mental edge over him, but another win for Federer like this and the dynamic of the rivalry could begin, at this seemingly late date, to change.
Late date: Forget I said that. What has been most remarkable about Federer’s last six months is how he has completely ended—or he should have completely end, anyway—speculation about his retirement from the press, as well as any rationalizations about his losses from his fans because of his age. I wrote recently that Federer already has redefined how dominant a tennis player can be at his mid-20s peak; now we'll see if he can redefine how well one can play, and how much he can win, after that peak has passed.
This week Federer looked less like the slowly aging legend than ever. Smiling and goofy, pleased and relieved after his win over Rafa in the rain, he looked like a guy whose 828th career win was just as much fun for him as his first.
That's it for me from Indian Wells. I'll be back Tuesday, in NYC, to give these last 10 days in the desert a final review.