A Flash of Light

Indian Wells, Final

(3) Federer d. (11) Isner, 7/6 6/3

It is difficult to imagine how this weekend could have been more satisfying for Roger Federer, who has for almost a decade masterfully balanced the clichéd necessity of negotiating each point as it comes with the enervating task of pursuing history. Between the ball in his hand and the alps on the horizon, between a moment and a career, there is a gulf of weary space in which to become lost. Somehow, he has never tired, and only very rarely strayed. For fans, endless delectation is found by surveying both the solid mass of the career and the thousands of moments that make it up. For the former, the fun comes from simply recounting the numbers, or of tallying up the myriad records he holds (there is a studiously tended Wikipedia page for this alone). For the latter, unnumbered Youtube highlights clips prove that the greatest career in men’s tennis cannot be solid, because it is composed of endless flashes of light.

With all of this to worry about, it’s doubtful whether Federer has much time for revenge. Nor, one imagines, does he have the will. If he did, then that urge would also have been amply satisfied in the last two days. Since the US Open, Federer has won 39 matches, and lost only two. Those two came consecutively, to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open and to John Isner in Davis Cup. Given the gravity of those occasions, they were massive losses, in the literal sense. (They should have dragged him down. And yet he proved typically buoyant in Rotterdam the following week, soared to the win, and commenced the streak that has nearly ruined Juan Martin del Potro’s year.) His two victories this weekend, both in straight sets, have been over Nadal and Isner. I’d like to say you couldn’t write it, but the fact is you could, easily. You’d simply be excoriated as a bad writer, since good ones are better at disguising their outrageous coincidences.

Federer’s relationship with Nadal, hitherto warm to the point of cloying, has lately gained a frosty edge. His relationship with Isner is nothing like that, even with a painful Davis Cup win to work through. On court with Isner, there’s just no time. Both men serve too well. The games that were not love holds were still quick, since the points were all short, and both men hardly dallied between them. Federer managed to hold in under a minute at least once, and Isner must have come close. Despite some initial difficulties, the games soon settled into the metronymic tic-toc of the old school shoot-out. Conditions were glacial – frigid and crawling – yet the play evoked Sampras and Ivanisevic. Two men, duelling with ordnance, one with a sniper rifle, the other a Howitzer. Now, as then, one break would prove decisive, if only it could be found.

It almost decided things on Isner’s serve at 5/6, when a break for Federer would have granted him the set. Isner erased the break point with a mighty serve, and the scores were tied. Luckily tennis has a mechanism with which to break such ties, and the players seemed content to resort to it. Isner is an exceptional tiebreak player – something to do with his serve? I don’t know – and just yesterday took Novak Djokovic out in a pair of them. Nonetheless, while Djokovic may be the best returner in the world, and among the best ever, I have never known anyone better than Federer at negating monster serves. This first set tiebreak marked the moment at which Federer finally began to read Isner’s monstrous delivery. All the same, minibreaks were traded regularly, set points arrived, mooched around, departed, came back for food. The last one came as Federer shanked a backhand pass at Isner, leaving the American with a difficult decision: do I put the volley away and make sure of it, or, on this blustery day, do I leave a wobbling, framed mishit and just hope it goes long? It turns out this is a pretty easy decision in hindsight, or when you’re merely a spectator. At the time, in super high-definition real-time, Isner opted to be a spectator, too, and was surely as interested as the rest of us when the ball landed on the line. Federer served out the set.

With the tie duly broken, the games returned to their steady rhythm. The metronome had been dialled up from scherzando to presto, although for Federer they remained largely comodo. The attack came suddenly, at 3/3. The world No.3 had grown progressively more confident returning Isner’s first serve. Isner served five of them in this pivotal game and lost four of the points, mostly via Federer’s trusty tactic, so far unused, of yanking his opponent forward with a low slice, then carving him up with the pass. The first was a flashing inside-out forehand, the second a backhand knifed up the line. The break came from a backhand at the ribs, fended meekly into the net. Scarlet billows spread, and Federer smelled victory. Another lightning hold sealed the break, and another break sealed the title. Federer thrust his arms aloft.

Isner, afterwards, was less thrilled than he might have been. Where so many have looked pleased just to be there, or merely resigned, the quiet American was disappointed: ‘I’m definitely not content.’ His discontent was directed at his relative passiveness in today’s match, but it was not limited to it. He was also not content merely to have reached his first Masters final. He believes he should be winning these things. It’s a daring belief to have, since almost no one outside the top four has won one for almost two years. To win this one he only needed to get through Djokovic and Federer back-to-back. That he believes he could have suggests his self-belief is genuine.

Federer, on the other hand, has claimed the last two Masters tournaments, and tied Nadal’s record. Indeed, since the US Open last October the Swiss has won six titles, and amassed more victories and points than anyone else, Djokovic included. Encouragingly, the last two of those titles have come outdoors. This is the first time he has won Indian Wells in six years. Before that he seemed to win it all the time, much as he used to win everything all the time. For those who subscribe to the general discourse of decline, with its cheap sepia-effects and noisome Weltschmerz, the temptation to view this as a late-career resurgence, an Indian Wells summer, must be irresistible. But there is a subversive counter-claim that Roger Federer might be better than ever, and that those innumerable flashes of light never dimmed.

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