Swiss Indoors 2019: Even after 10th Basel title, Roger Federer reminds us why every win is worthy of appreciation
Federer is threatening to run out of sight with his title count, but his tears remind us that no victory is ever too routine to be appreciated with all the fanfare we can muster.
Roger Federer unfurled just about every trick in the book to tie De Minaur into all sorts of knots and kill the match as a contest.
You would think a drop shot would be a bad idea against someone as quick as De Minaur. But when you can execute it like Federer there are no bad ideas.
When it was all over Federer seemed happier than ever, and at the trophy presentation he even let out a few tears. It was a touching moment.
On Sunday, there were two ATP 500 finals scheduled to take place within an hour of each other. The one in Vienna, between Dominic Thiem and Diego Schwartzman, started first. By the time Roger Federer and Alex de Minaur took the court for their title decider in Basel, Schwartzman had already established a one-set lead over the Austrian.
The similarities between the two matches were easy enough to identify. They both had a 6-foot-something local favorite facing a decidedly shorter opponent; they both featured a top 5 player trying to ward off a lower-ranked challenger; they both pitted an all-out aggressor against a speedy counterpuncher.
But as you switched between the channels telecasting the two matches, it felt like you were watching two different sports.
Thiem and Schwartzman kept themselves busy in brutal exchanges, trading heavy blows from the back of the court until one of them could throw down the hammer no longer. But Federer, and by extension De Minaur, couldn’t be bothered about trying to overpower each other. For them (but mostly for Federer), the game was less about raw muscle power and more about cerebral adjustments and deft touches.
The delicate slice in Basel was as much a weapon as the crushing forehand in Vienna was.
It was also quickly evident which was the more efficient method of the two. Thiem and Schwartzman started an hour earlier but still couldn’t keep pace with the Basel Bewitcher; they kept slugging it out well after Federer had wrapped up his 6-2, 6-2 demolition of De Minaur.
The win gave Federer his 10th title in the Swiss city, making him the first man ever to win 10 titles on two different surfaces (he won his 10th Halle title on grass earlier this year). But the numbers were pushed to the background while the action was going on, as the contrast on show captured our full attention.
It was 68 minutes of artistic finesse versus 145 minutes of bruising power. Did these four men really belong to the same universe?
Federer of course is no stranger to making people question whether he is from another universe. But his Basel 2019 performance was, even accounting for his otherworldly abilities, one for the golden chronicles.
The Swiss started the week with a 6-2, 6-1 drubbing of Peter Gojowczyk, and somehow got even better from there. For about 3/4th of his second round match against Radu Albot he threatened to inflict a double bagel on his hapless opponent. Against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi-final he put up one of his cleanest displays in recent memory, hitting 28 winners while committing just 11 errors. And in the final, he spun a web around De Minaur so intricate that you feared the Australian would trip over its strands during one of his madcap sprints.
It was a web that was both surprising and unpredictable, even after 20 years of watching Federer do his thing.
The prevailing idea going into the match was that Federer would have to rely on his offensive firepower to win, since he wouldn’t be able to match the 20-year-old De Minaur for consistency and foot speed. We got confirmation of the latter early enough; in the fourth game of the match the two men played a marathon 39-shot rally consisting mostly of crosscourt backhands, which ended with a Federer error.
Up until that point the match seemed evenly poised, with the Australian looking prepared to go toe-to-toe with the legend all night if he had to. But what good is a toe if you end up having your feet tied together?
On the very next point — Federer’s third break point of the game — the 38-year-old carved under a biting backhand slice that elicited a short ball. He pounced on it immediately, but rather than targeting De Minaur’s weaker backhand wing he went to his forehand instead.
The overhead putaway was fairly routine, and Federer had the break of serve. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, he had turned the dynamic of the rallies upside down and reaped instant rewards for it.
From that moment on it was less an ATP 500 final and more a coaching clinic. One of the greatest front-runners in history, Federer unfurled just about every trick in the book to tie De Minaur into all sorts of knots and kill the match as a contest. He kept going back to the slice, but he also approached the net with abandon, mixed in looping topspin forehands into the corners, and brought out the drop shot at regular intervals.
You’d think a drop shot would be a bad idea against someone as quick as De Minaur, but when you can execute like Federer there are no bad ideas. The drop shots in fact greatly unsettled the youngster; while he got to the first few comfortably, by the middle of the match he was second guessing in every rally and also finding himself at the net far more often than he’d have liked.
De Minaur has a lot of dazzling skills, but anticipation is not his biggest strength. The fact that he often chooses the wrong direction and still manages to turn around and get to the ball anyway makes for some spectacular points, but it also cedes control to the opponent. And when you cede control to Federer, you are asking for trouble; the Swiss had De Minaur on a string for vast stretches of time, and all anyone could do was pity the youngster.
Like many Federer matches, the end was the most jaw-dropping part. He manufactured a flurry of winners that left both his opponent and the crowd dumbfounded because of how starkly different they were from each other. You didn’t know what was coming next, but you knew it was going to be thrilling.
When it was all over Federer seemed happier than ever, and at the trophy presentation he even let out a few tears. It was a touching moment, but it was also a head-scratching one for some; how could he still get so emotional at winning a title, even after all these years? How could he still be moved to tears at lifting a trophy that he had hoisted nine times already?
The Swiss had famously been a ball-boy at the Swiss Indoors, and to go from there to winning the title 10 times is a journey that would get anyone unshakably attached. But there was more to Federer’s tears than a simple ‘home’ connection, as he himself explained later.
“I think it might be partially reminiscing back at everything that went on this week. Definitely the family, the thought of the team aspect, the family aspect, everything that goes into me still being able to do it today. People think I just go out there and just do it and have these types of weeks or these types of matches at will. But there’s so much more that goes into it,” Federer said.
In other words, the ‘magic’ that we see on the court is not really magic at all. The elegance, the effortlessness, the contrast between his matches and those involving the likes of Thiem — they are all a product of some dogged work behind the scenes, with sacrifices by multiple people along the way. And Federer has never lost sight of that, despite all the success and riches that have come his way.
“I don’t take these tournament victories as a normal thing. I take them as something unique and special, even though it’s been a lot by now,” he said.
There are many different ways to look at Federer’s Basel triumph. The optimists would say it is a sign that he has finally gotten over his Wimbledon heartbreak, and is ready to attack the remaining events of the year with his old gusto. The cynics would go to the other extreme and scoff that he only won an ATP 500 tournament, where there was no Nadal or Djokovic to challenge him.
But perhaps the best way to look at it is how Federer himself does: as something special and unique, no matter what the circumstances.
They are certainly unique and special, all 10 of them in Basel and 103 overall. Federer is threatening to run out of sight with his title count, but his tears remind us that no victory is ever too routine to be appreciated with all the fanfare we can muster.
Of course, it’s easy to bring the fanfare when his tennis continues to remain so….well, special and unique.
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