INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – With all the absences, with Novak Djokovic going out early, and with so many high seeds gone too soon, the BNP Paribas Open men’s singles final turned out all right after all.
No. 1 seed Roger Federer and No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro, two extremely popular players both on form this season, will vie for the trophy Sunday.
After that, it’s possible one of both of them will finally shave.
The two fuzzy finalists took different paths to the final match Saturday as Federer grinded out a win, and del Potro cruised on a way the conditions made things challenging.
Federer looked like a man who pressed the snooze button too many times until halfway through his match against 21-year-old Borna Coric of Croatia.
Most often, television and the tournaments themselves demand the world No. 1 get an spotlight match in the evening session. At worst, he tends to play late afternoon. So the 11 a.m. start may have felt as foreign to him as a middle-of-the-night wakeup call for a commuter flight.
The ATP Tour said that Federer had had just two 11 a.m. starts prior to this in his career: in 2006 here in the desert, and in 2004 at the tournament in Gstaad, Switzerland.
“Pasta at 9:15. It was yummy,” Federer quipped during is post-match interview for ESPN.
Tough conditions, tough match
The No. 1 looked out of sorts, perhaps a little stiff and sore, too (the cold, windy weather is not a friend to any 36-year-old professional athlete). And before he knew it he was down a set an a break to Coric, the 49th-ranked Croat who pulled off a third-set tiebreak win over No. 7 seed Kevin Anderson in the previous round.
But Federer woke up. He adjusted his targets to cut down the errors he was making in the wind. And Coric woke up, too – only in a different way. Faced with the prospect of upsetting the world No. 1, he flinched just enough, strayed from a successful game plan just enough, to allow Federer to pull out a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory.
Better lucky than good – but both help
Federer admitted he had some luck. He also didn’t decide, when he was in big trouble, that perhaps it just wasn’t going to be his day and ride out the inevitable.
“I think when you are confident and maybe also experienced and you have that combination, there’s no real need to panic, you know, because you can assess the situation quite easily,” Federer said. “You’re understanding that the opponent is playing better. It’s breezy. It’s hard to play offense. And when I was playing offense he was defending well. In the neutral rally balls, maybe I was missing a bit too many times.
“I think Borna played a great match. He was very steady. I can see why he caused a lot of problems to a lot of players, and he’s only going to improve from here,” Federer added. “Look, I should have lost the match. I was down twice a break in the third, I was down a break in the second. So, yeah, no doubt about it, this was definitely the toughest match, maybe the toughest match (this season).”
Despite appearances – at least early on – Federer said he was fine, physically. He said he was just caught off-guard by Coric’s game, the way he absorbed power so well and how he neutralized his offensive game combined with what Federer termed a recent “recalibration” of his game style to become a little more offensive-minded.
“He won because he’s Roger Federer”
Coric thought he had it, at some moments.
The Croat said the quick start was a combination of himself playing well, and Federer not playing well.
“But he stayed in the match and he pushed me. He basically, you know, he said to me, ‘Okay, you need to win the match. I’m not going to give the match to you.’ Many other players, especially because I was playing very good and I was not missing, many other players would just give the match away, you know, and he didn’t do it,” Coric said.
He won also because he’s Roger Federer, and because he plays great. … He played, I think, tactically very, very good, very smart in those very important points, you know, which I was a little bit surprised.”
Undefeated in 2018
Federer is now 17-0 to start the season – the best start of his career. Del Potro is not far behind him at 16-3. And despite some back woes earlier in the tournament, the Argentine looked in perfect form Saturday and had little trouble with Raonic.
The Canadian’s lack of match play this season – and the Argentine’s abundance of it – contributed to del Potro having more confidence in being aggressive in the challenging conditions. Raonic never found his rhythm.
“I was sort of trying to find a groove. Especially when you sort of haven’t played for a while, you already are overthinking a lot of things. And then, with the wind, you’re not sure. You don’t have just that calm and ease about going through things and figuring things out on the fly,” said Raonic, whose ranking will rise from No. 38 to No. 25 with his week in the desert.
“It was surprising to see him serving not too hard, and I broke his serve very quick in both sets. That give me the control of the match,” del Potro said. ” I play a smart game, because the conditions were tough to play, but I did everything good. And I served well. I took all my chances. It was an easier match than what I expect before.”
25th meeting between Federer and del Potro
Federer is 18-6 against del Potro during their careers.
But despite that rather lopsided head-to-head, they have had some fascinating tussles. Del Potro has defeated Federer at some of the tournaments that mean the most to him. He won back-to-back three-setters in the finals of the Basel event (Federer’s hometown tournament) in 2012 and 2013. And he has beaten Federer twice at the US Open, including last year.
“We both know what the other is trying to do, and we try to stop the other person from doing it. But it’s hard when me or him is in full flight. It’s basically an arm wrestle the whole time, and I think we enjoy that,” Federer said.