Nick Kyrgios stared across the net at Roger Federer as he walked to the sideline. The two players were changing sides at 9-9 in the first-set tiebreaker, but a few seconds earlier Kyrgios had assumed he would be walking off the court a 10-8 winner. He had just dropped a 130-plus-m.p.h. bomb serve to Federer’s backhand side; in Kyrgios’ experience, that’s usually more than enough to earn him a point. Not this time; not against Federer at 8-9 in a tiebreaker.
Federer stuck out his racquet and blocked the ball back. A fair number of other guys in that situation could have done the same. But what they couldn’t have done was put the ball in the most difficult spot possible for their opponent. Federer sent his return skidding short, low and at an extreme crosscourt angle. Instead of winning the set, Kyrgios found himself hustling past the doubles alley just to stay in the point. But he wasn’t in it for long. With the rest of the court wide open, Federer flicked another backhand up the line for a winner. Kyrgios, like many other spectators watching Federer over the last 15 years, could only stare in disbelief.
If one point can sum up a 7-6 (9), 6-7 (9), 7-6 (5), three-hour-and-10-minute match, it was that one. Over the course of a Miami evening that was equal parts tense and raucous, the 21-year-old Kyrgios and the 35-year-old Federer put their very different styles and personalities up against each other, and from beginning to end there was almost nothing to separate them.
Kyrgios hammered 135-m.p.h first serves and 125-m.p.h. second serves. He worked Federer from side to side with his heavy topspin forehand. He volleyed well, passed well and mixed up his paces and positioning unpredictably but intelligently. He rattled Federer a few times with his own version of the SABR. And he made his second reverse-tweener crosscourt passing-shot winner of the tournament. Even after losing that first-set tiebreaker, 11-9, Kyrgios never went away or let his emotions get the best of him—not a for a single point.
Kyrgios also hit a 118-m.p.h forehand; the only problem was, Federer was there to volley it for a winner. That was Kyrgios’ only problem all night, really. The guy on the other side of the net wouldn’t go away, either—not for a single point. Federer answered Kyrgios’ attack with his own more varied but equally potent one. He read and covered Kyrgios’ serve well; the Aussie hit just 14 aces, a fairly low number for him. As always, Federer’s serve and forehand were there when he needed them, and his tactic of hitting a soft backhand to Kyrgios’ backhand, in order to elicit a soft ball in return, allowed him to run around and crack a forehand on several key points. One day after beating Tomas Berdych in another third-set tiebreaker, Federer didn’t lack any fire or energy. He matched Kyrgios not only shot for shot, but “Come on!” for “Come on!”
Aside from the firepower and shot-making wizardry, what made this match special was how, just when you thought one of these guys might crack, he didn’t.
When Kyrgios served for the first set at 5-4, a seemingly demoralized Federer sprang to life and broke him. When Kyrgios led 9-8 in the tiebreaker, Federer answered again with that brilliant backhand return.
In the second set, it was Kyrgios’ turn to stay strong under pressure. He leveled the second-set tiebreaker at 5-5 with his fiercest forehand winner of the night. He saved a match point with a surprise kick serve change-of-pace, saved another with a service winner, and closed the set with an ace.
Finally, in the deciding tiebreaker, it was Federer turn, down 4-5, to win the final three points for the match. And there, in the end, it was Kyrgios’ turn to crack. He lived by the full-throttle second serve all night, and then he died by it. At 5-5, he hit a 128-m.p.h. second ball over the service line to give Federer match point.
The crowd roared its approval, as they had all evening for Kyrgios’ missteps. It had been three years since Federer had played in Miami, and six years since he had reached a semifinal there, so the fans had a lot of pent-up Fed love to show. Did they show too much hate to Kyrgios? They were too hard on him, certainly, when he acted out. Kyrgios helped put on a tremendous show for them, and his play and grit and fire deserved respect.
But like any passionate partisan crowd in any sport, the Miamians knew what they wanted, and what they wanted was a Federer win. It reminded me of a combination of two other matches that I watched live: Federer’s win over Gael Monfils at the U.S. Open in 2014, and his win over Novak Djokovic at the 2011 French Open. Both had exceptionally one-sided audiences, but neither match would have been as memorable or entertaining without them. The Miami crowd may have been overzealous in their rooting at times, but passion is the last thing we should discourage in a tennis audience.
And passion is the last thing we should discourage in Kyrgios. Like the crowd, he went overboard at times, cursing, smashing multiple racquets, telling people in the crowd to “shut up,” and raising his voice at the ball kids (the latter is generally the only thing about Kyrgios that rubs me the wrong way). But if those are sins, they’re sins of effort, and much more forgivable than the sins of non-effort he has been known to commit in the past.
“It was worthwhile to stay more,” Federer said, when he was asked about losing two match points in the second set. “The atmosphere got even more epic.”
It was that kind of night: Even the man who could have won the match an hour earlier was happy to stick around for another set of this one.