Can dreams be planned? If so, Federer did his best to plot this one out beforehand.
He began by winning the toss and electing to receive serve, with the understanding that first-game, final-Sunday jitters might give him his best chance to break Isner’s serve all day.
Then, when that game started, Federer looked as if had spent the previous two days locked in a dark room, breaking down Isner game film. He read the big man’s serves, he read his forehands, he read which way he was going to lean at the net; he did everything short of taking up residence in Isner’s brain. And when Isner shanked a forehand into the 10th row, he had his break.
“It relaxes your nerves,” said Federer, though he hardly looked a man who was dealing with any anxiety issues. “If you can hold your next game and go up 2-0, you know you’re in the match and the other guy isn’t. It’s going to require something special from the opponent to come back.”
That last sentence could serve as the manifesto of the born front-runner. Where many of us might tighten up with a lead, and start to worry about giving it back, Federer immediately felt as if Isner was going to have raise his level far beyond his norm just to catch up with him. Of course, Federer may have felt extra confident with an early lead against this opponent: Isner hasn’t broken his serve in seven years, and he didn’t come close to doing it today. After losing the first service point he played, Federer won the next 20. He never looked as if he had to get his game out of second gear to do it.
As amazing as Federer’s service numbers were, they weren’t unexpected. What was special about this performance was how well he returned. When we talk about all-time great returners, we usually talk about guys who can counter-punch with their two-handed backhands: Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Novak Djokovic. Federer obviously doesn’t do that; instead of counter-punching, he absorbs and redirects pace with his one-hander, puts the ball in difficult positions for his opponent, and, most important, simply gets as many returns back in play as possible. It might not be highlight-reel stuff a lot of the time, but you can’t argue with Federer’s record against the ATP monster servers: With his 6-1, 6-4 win today, he’s now 30-6 combined versus Ivo Karlovic, Milos Raonic, and Isner.
While this match had a dream start for Federer, it had an nightmare ending for Isner and the Miami fans: The American spent the last three games hobbled by a stress fracture in his left foot. Federer’s title was the 101st of his career, and it made him the first player on either tour to win two tournaments in 2019.
At the start of the season, you might have bet good money that world No. 1 Novak Djokovic would be the ATP’s first multi-tournament winner. But just as Djokovic had a meteoric resurgence in the middle of 2018, the 37-year-old Federer has answered with his own over the last month.
When Federer lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Australian Open, and Djokovic and Rafael Nadal stormed to the final virtually unopposed, it looked as if Federer’s time at the very top of the game might finally be coming to an end. Since then, Federer has beaten Tsitsipas on his way to the title in Dubai; reached the Indian Wells final; and won Miami. Meanwhile, neither Djokovic nor Nadal have played a semifinal since the Aussie Open. Miami gave us glimpses of the future, including deep runs by teen Canadians Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime; but it ended, as so many weeks have ended over the last two decades, with Federer.
What did we learn from Federer 101? Exactly what we’ve always learned from him: You come prepared, you use all the variety at your disposal, you jump out to a lead and make your opponent do something special to come back, if he can.
“It’s a dream come true to be standing here,” 20 years after he made his Miami debut, he said on the podium afterward. In Federer’s world, dreams, it seems, really can be planned.