Roger Federer and Miami have quite a history. This is the tournament where Federer first played Rafael Nadal in 2004, where Federer has gained no less than four titles and where the 2017 victory helped cement one of the greatest comebacks of all time. Played in the American spring heat, the Miami Open sponsored by Itaú, to give it its full name is part of the “Sunshine Double”, alongside the tournament coming just before it, Indian Wells. Both tournaments are Masters 1000s, some of the biggest-ticket items in the tennis calendar for players to fight for.
With an upbeat and pleasingly boisterous American crowd tennis becomes a genuine sport for the public, with no restraint or the hushed, limiting formality of Wimbledon. This is real, raw, spectator-fuelled action with courts and outfits bursting with colour. At Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park, purple courts were surrounded by a sea of green. In 2017 Federer and Nadal were also decked in green, Federer opting for a forest number for his shirt while Nadal was in a more fluorescent shade. In 2019 after the move to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, a turquoise base surrounded a rich ocean-blue court. Federer was in the same pallet with a mint shirt and white shorts. Amidst the stands men pump the air with fists in excitement, children dance to the DJ’s music and players are treated to an abundantly stocked drinks fridge right by their own bench. Miami is fun.
So in this happy milieu, Federer once again triumphed as the champion of Miami in 2019.
Federer had not won a tournament of this significance since the Australian Open in January 2018. Having come close to winning Indian Wells finals back-to-back with three match points against Juan Martín del Potro in 2018 and again being defeated by Dominic Thiem in 2019, Federer had now succeeded where he had recently failed to win another big title. The question is – why here at Miami? The reasons why someone wins a tennis match or tournament are ultimately speculative. Because no hard evidence is available, direct causes of winning are tough to prove. They remain somewhat amorphous, hypothetical. We can however, suggest the most likely causes of victory from what we know about players and the tournament, views from the commentators and our own observations of the match-play itself.
Losing Indian Wells seemed free Federer up. In the final against Thiem Federer was playing to win, hitting with power and intent. In Miami, Federer appeared a completely different player. He was relaxed, loose, free from outcome. He enjoyed and honoured making contact with the ball. He remained competitive yet he did not clasp. Perhaps because there was less expectation for Federer to win the tournament and no pressure to try for the Sunshine Double, his mind seemed calm and alert. Federer also noticed in the press conference after the Indian Wells final that being in good physical condition was keeping him “upbeat”.
A relaxed state afforded him a number of benefits. Part of Federer’s 2017 comeback was the greatly upgraded or “neo-backhand”. Federer was hitting the ball flatter, on the rise and with more conviction, being able to produce winners even off the return of serve consistently across tournaments. In 2017 Federer hit the backhand with his arms spread behind him in sync, not turning towards where the ball was heading, chest proudly pointing out, rising on his right leg with the left in the air for balance. In 2018 however, the shot was not as committed, hitting slower and spreading his non-dominant arm less. Federer’s relaxed state in Miami seemed to give him the freedom to hit his neo-backhand again, giving him extra punch. Federer produced winners down the line and deep balls cross-court, arms spread. The forehand also seemed more relaxed and powerful, hitting with considerably more racquet-lag than he did in Indian Wells. There was no tension - his movements were fluid and at ease.
A relaxed state also meant that Federer was more creative, translating into great tactical variation and unexpected patterns of play. Federer employed drop-shots to superb effect, while he often used the slice backhand against taller players who couldn’t cope so well from the low bounce either to win the point or draw an error. He was happy to rally, not wanting to finish exchanges immediately. In this mental space his genius and flare bubbled up in Miami Gardens, as one analyst noted he was “confusing, confounding” his opponent. It was as if Federer was on holiday and was playing tennis just to pass the time, without squandering his opportunity to close out a lead when the moment called for it.
Federer also came across opponents who were somewhat handicapped. After the third round the race for the Miami crown was supposed to tighten with the top players being the only contenders remaining. Federer however, from the quarter-finals onwards, remarkably found himself across the net against players who were beset by problems. Federer’s next match was against Kevin Anderson who had the potential to pose quite a challenge being 6’8” with a big serve. Anderson had not played a match on tour since 16 January earlier that year at the Australian Open due to an elbow injury. The next time he played was 23 March at Miami. Anderson perhaps struggled from his lack of recent match experience with thirty unforced errors to Federer’s twelve. Even the court was in Federer’s favour. The big-serving Anderson by comparison preferred a relatively faster court; his only victory against Federer coming at Wimbledon the preceding year. The concrete at Miami was slower than grass, softening Anderson’s power. The tournament organisers put every one of Federer’s matches in the main stadium within which a smaller stadium was erected giving an indoor feel that he thrived on. Mirka Federer didn’t seem too worried arriving deep in the first set, 5-0 on Roger’s serve.
In the semi-finals Denis Shapovalov came up against his tennis “idol”. Maybe a little starstruck by the experience of playing Federer, Shapovalov couldn’t seem to find his rhythm, lifting groundstrokes high over the baseline. Shapovalov had twenty-nine unforced errors to Federer’s eight, most coming on his forehand. In the final poor John Isner had his set of difficulties. At a changeover in the second set he called the trainer for a problem with his left foot. Federer paced around the court towel in-hand, inspecting one of the tramlines as some light rain had found its way onto the court. While Isner dressed with his foot strap Federer gently trod behind the baseline swatting the air back and forth with his racquet, the orange highlights on his shoes standing out in the sea of blue around him. After the next game had finished Isner once again had the foot inspected after the commentators had heard that he asked the trainer if the foot was broken. It later transpired to be a stress fracture. Not wanting to take away his opponent’s chance to celebrate victory it was also noted, Isner played on until a ball landed long on the right baseline, and Federer was the Miami Open champion once again.
So from January 2018 until March 2019 Federer did not win a big title, even if he did come tantalisingly close. A return to form after a relative dry spell cannot be definitively explained. Sometimes the undulations in a player’s quality happens for no other reason that things in one’s life constantly change. A period of good play is met after by a period of lesser play, before a return to good play is restored in the cycle of phenomena. But by looking at Federer’s time spent in Miami, there are clearly notable features that can go some way to explain his success. Advantageous court conditions, an unfortunately latter draw beset with difficulties and a relaxed state of mind especially, had likely bearing on Federer’s victories. In Miami 2019, Roger Federer had his fair share of adventures.