It was the most routine and innocuous-looking of forehand shanks. It came in the first game of the match. But it ended up making all the difference.
When Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Roger Federer at the Australian Open in January, he did it first and foremost by saving break points: all 12 of them, over the course of four tight sets. When they met again on Saturday in the Dubai final, it took Federer roughly three minutes to end that run of futility.
Down 15-40 in the opening game, Federer hit a return down the middle, and Tsitsipas, for no apparent reason, hit a forehand wide. Federer had his break. A little more than an hour later, he had a 6-4, 6-4 win, and his 100th career title.
“I got off on a flyer and never looked back,” Federer said.
In Australia, it had been Tsitsipas who played with more energy and aggression, and Federer who had looked a step slower than normal. In Dubai, that dynamic was turned around entirely. This time Federer was the player in charge, rifling forehand winners, pressing forward when possible, and controlling the proceedings with his first serve. Federer made 76 percent of them, and won 83 percent of those points.
“I played the right way,” Federer said. “Things happened fast. Best-of-three-set tennis on a fast court against someone like Stefanos, who also likes to take the ball early, I tried to be very aggressive myself and it worked out.”
When Tsitsipas tried to change patterns, Federer found the answers that he couldn’t come up with in Australia. For me, the match was summed up at 4-3 in the first set, when Tsitsipas chipped a crosscourt backhand at a short angle. It’s a shot that Federer has used to great effect his entire career; in this case, he recognized the ploy immediately, jumped on top of the ball before it could dip below net level, and drilled a crosscourt backhand for a winner.
Tsitsipas had played a lot of tennis coming into this match. He had won the title the previous week in Marseille, and had squeaked past Gael Monfils in a third-set tiebreaker the day before, in a match filled with long rallies. Not surprisingly, he was sluggish at the start against Federer. Still, the 20-year-old found a second wind in the second set, and it briefly looked like he had the momentum to push the match to a third. Then, out of nowhere, he ended the match the way he had started it; up 30-0 at 4-4, he lost eight straight points.
“I think this one has a deep satisfaction,” Federer said of getting his 100th title, in his first final since October, “because I know what it means.”
“A lot of people emphasize the Slams and all these things. I play on the ATP Tour...I don’t rest between Slams all the time, the way people think I might be.”
Can Federer get to Jimmy Connors’ men’s-record 109 singles titles? (Martina Navratilova’s all-time mark of 164 seems safe.) Nine more obviously won’t be easy, especially with Novak Djokovic in top form again. But Federer has won nine since June 2017—a little less than two years’ time. At 37, he’d probably have to keep up that pace to have a shot at it.
The more significant question may be: Can Djokovic or Rafael Nadal catch Federer? That won’t be easy, either. The Spaniard currently has 80 titles, and the Serb 73. Who knows, if they end up in a three-way tie for Slam titles, this statistic could loom larger than it does today.
For now, Federer can savor the moment. He’s reached 100, he’s avenged a tough loss against a future star, and he’s reminded everyone that he’s still around, and still winning. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but in Federer’s case, you don’t need to; the old tricks will always be good enough.
If Federer reminded us of what we’ve been seeing for the last 20 years in Dubai, Nick Kyrgios spent the week in Acapulco reminding us what we’ve been missing for much of the last five.
Kyrgios came to Mexico at something of a low point in his career. His ranking had dropped to No. 72. He hadn’t won a title in 14 months. He had lost in the first round at the Australian Open and was 2-3 on the year. When people talked about who the ATP’s future stars might be, they talked about Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Karen Khachanov, and others. They rarely talked about Kyrgios anymore, despite the fact that he’s still just 23.
Maybe it was Kyrgios’s good luck that he landed in one bracket over from Nadal in Acapulco. The chance to play Rafa, apparently, was motivation enough for Kyrgios to leave his long-running malaise behind. He saved three match points to beat Nadal, slugged his way past Stan Wawrinka despite third-set cramps, edged John Isner in another third-set tiebreaker and then dominated Zverev in the final.
We’ve talked a lot about Kyrgios the personality, Kyrgios the showman, Kyrgios the guy who puts fans in the seats. In Acapulco he showed again that it’s Kyrgios the competitor—the guy who lets his racquet do the talking—who is the most entertaining of all.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Kyrgios said. “It’s hopefully an example for people who are struggling and getting in some places you don’t think you can get out of. If I can do it, you can do it. I was really down and out and didn’t know what I was going to do, but you have a week like this and things can change.”
When he wants to be, Kyrgios is a complete player, with natural talents in every aspect of the game. There’s his serve, of course; he hit 13 aces in 10 service games against Zverev. But he also won with his return, which he made consistently; his drop shots, which he had no trouble using on the most important points; and his passing shots. He hit two brilliant dipping passes, one forehand and one backhand, to break Zverev for 3-1 in the first set.
“If you beat four players like that in a 500 tournament, you deserve to win it,” Zverev said. “He’s the real champion of this week.”
Is Kyrgios ready to be a champion next week, and the week after that, and the week after that? That’s doubtful; physically and psychologically, he doesn’t seem to be built for the grind. But that doesn’t mean this will be a one-off, either; now Kyrgios knows that with a solid competitive effort, he can still beat anyone, and he can push through to the end of a big tournament. At some point this season, you have to think he’s going to want to feel this way again.