The hype preceding the third round match between Roger Federer and Juan Del Potro was off the decibel meter as these two set to collide in the third round at the Miami Open. Federer conquered the Argentine 6-3, 6-4 to advance to the fourth round.
After two wrists surgeries over the last few years, Del Potro has slowly worked his way back to a ranking of 29. This was the 21st match between the two. Del Potro had beaten the former world number one in the U.S. Open final in 2009 as well as in the final at his home town tournament, Basel, in 2012. Although Federer has a 15-5 mark against the Argentine, Del Potro had won 3 of their ultimate 5 meetings.
The opening set was uneventful until the sixth game when a backhand down the line winner gave Federer double break point. Del Potro rebounded with a couple of great serves to level the set at 3 all. But, he could not escape a second time. Subsequent to a untroubled hold by the reigning Australian Open champion, Del Potro again was asked to overcome 15-40. This time around, when Federer’s forehand pass landed for a winner, he secured the break for 5-3.
Del Potro put up some stiff resistance the next game, getting to 15-40 with a beautiful forehand crosscourt winner. Federer replied with an unreturnable serve and forehand down the line winner for deuce. Two more chances to break for Del Potro went unclaimed. Eventually, two consecutive volley winners allowed Federer to take the set.
The second set was similar to the first with Federer manufacturing 15-40 in the fifth game. Because of a sleuth of miscues by Del Potro, Federer went on to collect the break and swiftly consolidated for 4-2. In the eighth game, Del Potro had an opportunity to break and get back on serve. But, the Argentine’s forehand, his best stroke, failed him. Federer served out the match and booked his place in the round of 16.
Does Del Potro feel a bit unlucky having to deal with the likes of Federer or Novak Djokovic so early in these tournaments? “It’s the luck that I have because of my rankings. Someone has to play them. Physically, I was okay.”
Still, Del Potro is encouraged by his performance today “I had my chances in both sets with break points. But Federer played solid in the important moments. You don’t have to play perfect tennis against Federer to win, but you have to capitalize on your chances. . you have to look at the positive side. At the start of 2016, my dream was just to get back on court, to compete again. I did not expect the success that I had at the Olympics and Davis Cup. I have not hit a two handed backhand for a long time until this tournament which is one of the things that I realize. Once I get back the backhand, it will be less physically taxing on my game.”
The statistics were spectacular for the 18 time major holder who hit 29 winners and committed only 19 unforced miscues. So the Swiss was pretty pleased with his outing. Was it really as uncomplicated as it appeared ? “It depends a little bit on your angle. I felt that I was in control and I was able to generate more chances than he did. . . Out of nowhere, I felt he got his chances, maybe because I dropped my level ever so slightly and gave him a few easy points. . .. I was more the aggressor. It was more on my racket. I like it that way”
The complexion of the match could have been altered if Del Potro had seized one of his opportunities especially in the initial set. Federer expounded “looking back, that was probably the key. I knew when he had the break point at 15-40, if I could dig my way out of that game, instead of being broken, hold and win the set, it’s a good escape. Juan Martin didn’t play his best because he did have his chances there on second serves and he could have done better, maybe played more aggressive, who knows what. But I hit some good shots to stay in there.”
The stadium was packed and the vibe was scorching like the South Florida sun. What did Federer think? “shortly before I walked out to the court you could sense the atmosphere. That’s when I told myself, just be prepared for something different. I think if the match would have gone three sets or tiebreakers or something even closer, would have been really epic. . . it was just really a great, nice atmosphere. A lot of pleasure playing him. Nice weather. Great opponent. Great crowd.”
Up to last season, Federer had a relatively injury free career. Because of his extended hiatus, his ranking suffered. Bumping into rivals prior to the quarters or semis will occur “If we’re all ranked outside of the top eight it’s going to happen more frequently naturally. That’s why Indian Wells maybe I’m to blame. I had a chance in Dubai to get into the top eight and I didn’t make it by losing in the second round. Then of course I got lucky or earned my way forward in Australia. If I would have lost early there I would’ve been outside of the top 30 and would have taken a while to get back into the top eight.”
With age come responsibility and wisdom. Consequently, foremost on Federer’s mind is “to be a bit more clever in terms of scheduling overall. Unfortunately, I can’t do it all. I can’t chase the Davis Cup and the slams and play all the Masters 1000s. At some point something has to give, unfortunately. I wish I could do it all like when I was 24 years old. . .I have to take some important decisions that work well for me as a tennis player, but then also for my family and my whole team. . .get the rest that I need, but then also play enough matches. If you don’t play enough normally you kind of lose touch of how to play break points, save break points, the shoulder gets rusty. Who knows what it is? You need the right balance. I think that’s more key than ever right now.”
At 35, is returning to number one a goal for Federer? “It’s not the priority. Health needs to be the priority. That’s why if I were to get there again I have to really win a lot of big tournaments, and I know how hard that is. I tried to do it for the last five years. So as long as I’m healthy, I feel like I can play good tennis, enjoy myself, I can beat – hopefully – some of the best players in the world, or most of them, and win tournaments as well. The rankings is very secondary.”
Most athletes come at a crossroad in their career because injury, it’s a factor in the sport. Federer states “two years ago. . . I was not 100%. At some point you just feel like in those kind of circumstances, Masters 1000s towards the end when you have to back it up day after day or play four-, five-setters every second day against the best, it’s not going to be enough at the very end. The margins are too small for anybody up there. . .very disappointing, when you realize that you’re ready to do it mentally. . .something physically is hindering you from really actually going all out. That’s how I felt. That’s why after playing like this for virtually four months, doing so much rehab and it feels like you’re having a cloud in your head all the time because you’re doing so much treatment. You hope you’re going to be better the next day. Rather than focusing on the nice weather, the nice crowd, and the good opponent you’re going to face, you’re actually hoping your knee is going to hold up. . . It’s okay to do that for a couple of weeks or for a few tournaments during the season. If you do it every single day for a month, that’s when you have to, in my opinion, take a break and rest and come back properly. That’s what I did, and I cannot believe the way it paid off actually.”
Upcoming fourth round opponent for Federer is Roberto Baustista Agut. The Spaniard dispatched Sam Querrey 3-6,6-2, 6-3. Although Federer won their five previous encounters, he knows the Spaniard is no push over “I respect Bautista Agut a lot. Was watching his match against Querrey and I really thought Querrey was playing great in the first set. I thought that at some point he was going steamroll, but that’s what Bautista Agut does so well. He competes so well point for point, day in day out, and he plays ton of tournaments, and he’s really just match tough. He may be hurt. He was taping his feet. . .I am sure he was in pain and he found a way it get it done in the end. . .I hope I can use my variation to really make him feel uncomfortable. Looking forward to backing it up tomorrow now. It’s not something I’m actually used to, playing back-to-back days. So I hope my body is going to be fine tomorrow.”