Borna Coric, it seemed, had finally done it. After playing for three sets and more than two hours against Roger Federer in Rome on Thursday, he had finally made a crucial shot, the shot he hadn’t been able to make all afternoon.
Serving at 5-4 in the third-set tiebreaker, Coric had pulled the trigger on a mid-court forehand and, instead of sending it into the net or over the baseline, as he had on so many other crucial occasions in this contest, he had rifled it past Federer for a winner. The crowd, fully in Federer’s corner, had been silenced. Coric had reached match point.
Now, unfortunately, he had to do it all over again.
At 6-4, Coric and Federer rallied. Coric pushed forward, and Federer retreated; he was going to make Coric hit another anxiety-filled forehand, but this time he was going to slice the ball and keep it lower, and force to hit up on it. This time, Federer calculated correctly. Coric stepped in, took a rip, and sent the ball into the net. Technically, the Croat still had another match point, but you wouldn’t have known it from the way the audience exploded with joy. Five points—and two more forehand misses from Coric—later, Federer had a 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7) win.
“I played in a way that I wasn’t going to lose it,” Federer said. “I gave him a chance to win it and he didn’t, so I took it at the end, I guess.”
Through the first set and a half, a Federer win had appeared to be unlikely at best. He had struggled with the huge shadows that crossed the Grandstand court. He had been distracted by the chaos in the crowd, as fans tried to wedge themselves into the relatively intimate confines of the second show court at the Foro Italico. He had also been annoyed by the court itself, which he thought had been over-watered to the point of slipperiness. More than anything, though, Federer had been annoyed by the match, and its scoreline. While Coric was solid, steady, and calmly aggressive in the early going, Federer had sprayed his ground strokes and found himself unable to get any kind of read on his opponent’s serve.
But as the shadows faded and a new set began, Federer began to find his rhythm. With so many people willing to get back into the match, a turning point seemed all but inevitable; it came with Coric serving at 2-3. At deuce, Coric left a crosscourt forehand hanging, and, for the first time, Federer stepped in and drilled it back crosscourt for a winner; he broke soon after. While Coric would break back for 4-5, he couldn’t hold onto his serve. Down 15-40, he saved one set point with a good forehand; on the second one, Federer lofted another ball to Coric’s forehand, daring him to attack with it again. Coric did exactly what Federer hoped, sailing the ball long and handing him the set.
A pattern had been set for the third. Coric would dig in, build a lead, and then fail to come up with the shot he needed to finish the job. Coric had break points on Federer’s serve at 2-2 and 4-4, but he gave them back with forehand errors both times. At 4-4, Coric led 0-30, and had a good look at a second serve, but again, he sent his backhand return flying over the baseline. In the deciding tiebreaker, Coric went up 5-2, but immediately gave a point back with a backhand into the net.
Finally, when Coric couldn’t grab either of his match points at 6-4 and 6-5 in the breaker, it was Federer’s turn, as he said, to “take it.” At 6-6, he snapped off a forehand winner, and on his first match point, he came up with a brilliant, dipping pass that Coric couldn’t handle.
This was Federer’s first trip to Rome since 2016; so far, he’s giving the fans as much as of himself as he can. He played two matches and five sets today, and tomorrow he’ll be back out there against either Fabio Fognini or Stefanos Tsitsipas. Federer may have been distracted by the rowdy Romans to start today, but by the end, when they helped carry him across the finish line, he was happy to hear them.
“It’s exactly what you want the atmosphere to be.”