Normally, we don’t learn much from a pre-match interview, beyond the fact that a player is going to play his game, and that the match is going to be a tough one. What else can we expect from an athlete who is just about to walk on court to compete in front of thousands of people?
In his pre-match interview with ESPN’s Brad Gilbert on Friday in Miami, Denis Shapovalov mouthed the usual bromides. He said his semifinal with Roger Federer was going to be difficult, and that that he would play his game and see how it went. But while his words weren’t especially revealing, the 19-year-old Canadian’s body language was: He looked, as Gilbert would point out later, like he was having trouble breathing.
As Shapo said the day before, this was a milestone moment for him. He was facing the man whom he referred to multiple times as “my idol” for the first time, in a Masters 1000 semifinal. If his interview beforehand didn’t let you know how tight he was, his opening service game should have. Shapovalov made eight unforced errors in that game alone, and threw in a double fault before finally eking out a hold.
In this case, though, the victory really was Pyrrhic. As Federer said afterward, that long game gave the Swiss a chance to get a read on all of the various serves that Shapovalov, a lefty who generates a lot of spin, would throw at him. When Federer ripped through one of his traditional 60-second holds in the next game, the pressure was immediately back on Shapovalov’s shoulders. This time he buckled under it and was broken. Federer was off to the races, while Shapovalov remained stuck at the gate. He would finish the first set with four winners against 20 unforced errors. And while Federer would make just 40 percent of his first serves, he wouldn’t face a break point.
Federer called this a “tactical” performance, and said he was happy to play with “variation,” because Shapovalov “obviously has the power.” While he had never faced Shapo before, Federer seemed to have him sized up perfectly. On his return, he stepped forward and made sure he got the ball into Shapovalov’s weaker backhand side. The same was true on his serve; on the very few occasions when he found himself in any trouble, Federer got out of it by serving and volleying into Shapovalov’s chip backhand return. Shapovalov’s one-hander is one of the most spectacular shots in the game, but it’s also a place where his opponents can go when they need a point.
Of course, it wasn’t all just dry Xs and Os from Federer; he also brought his usual athletic dazzle to this night session. He dug out a brilliant Shapovalov backhand pass with an even more brilliant drop volley. He blocked a return from in front of his face and somehow placed the ball just over the net, where Shapovalov couldn’t do anything with it. He ended a side-to-side, 30-shot rally with a forehand winner. And he kept coming up with surprises until the very end. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set, up 30-15, Federer fooled Shapovalov by slicing his second serve sharply down the T; it was a shot he hadn’t hit for much of the evening, and Shapo missed the return badly.
With his 6-2, 6-4 win, Federer is now into his third straight final, and his second straight at a Masters 1000. None of the young players who have been making noise in recent months—Shapovalov, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Frances Tiafoe—are still around. Despite the fact that Shapovalov had been watching Federer for much longer than Federer had been watching Shapovalov, it was the older man who came up with shots that the younger never saw coming. That’s what idols do.