There were mixed fortunes for the Swiss contingent at the Miami Open on Tuesday night. Roger Federer kept up his extraordinary sequence of hard-court wins, broken only once this season. But Stan Wawrinka cannot have enjoyed his 32nd birthday, losing in three sets to fast-rising German teenager Alexander Zverev.
To Federer first, and this wasn’t quite the ice-cool destroyer we have seen for much of the year. Playing the resilient Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, he committed 32 unforced errors, and struggled to reproduce the dominant form he had shown in the previous two rounds. At one point, it even sounded as if he might have sworn.
But then this was a rare case of Federer having to play matches on consecutive days, after his more comfortable victory over Juan Martin del Potro on Monday. Perhaps his arm didn’t feel quite as loose as usual. But there were still some magnificent points to enjoy here, including one rat-a-tat exchange at the net which drew a standing ovation from the crowd. And he was never behind in the match, which was decided by two tie-breaks: 7-6, 7-6.
His next opponent will be Tomas Berdych, a man he dismembered in spectacular style at the Australian Open two months ago with a performance that kick-started this astonishing run.
But the other quarter-final on this side of the draw looks equally fascinating, with Zverev – who took out the top seed Wawrinka by a 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 margin – now into the last eight of a Masters series event for the first time.
Earlier, Rafael Nadal had seemed more concerned by the low-flying plane that buzzed Crandon Park on Tuesday than by the challenge of Nicolas Mahut, which he subdued unfussily in straight sets.
The aircraft, which seemed to have lost its way over Key Biscayne, drew gasps from the capacity crowd in the Stadium Arena as it cruised by at low altitude. Nadal, who was busy taking a drink at the change of ends, craned his neck as it passed overhead, but then got back to business quickly, winning three of the next five points to close out his 6-4, 7-6 victory.
Nadal’s own tournament had seemed to be running into turbulence in his previous match against Philipp Kohlschreiber – his 1000th on the ATP tour – which began with a “bagel” 6-0 set against him. From that moment, though, he rediscovered his form, and particularly his first serve.
Nadal is not exactly known as a disciple of Pete Sampras – or perhaps we should speak of Goran Ivanisevic, given his left-handedness – but over the last four sets he has landed 70 first serves and lost only four of those points. Rather like Federer swinging hard at his topspin backhand, this represents an unusual direction for a player we all know so well. And it highlights how determined these old soldiers are to keep improving, even after more than a decade on the tour.
Wednesday night’s quarter-final will pit Nadal against Jack Sock, the leading American player at No. 17 and one of the few men on tour who can generate similar torque on his forehand side.
Also on Wednesday, Great Britain’s Johanna Konta will play in the quarter-finals here for the second year running. Having lost narrowly to Victoria Azarenka 12 months ago, Konta is now up against against Simona Halep, the Romanian whom she will face again in the Fed Cup in three weeks’ time.
Konta’s coach Wim Fissette should be well-placed to advise her, as he worked with Halep through the 2014 season. At the time he said that the Romanian’s greatest asset was her “footballer’s legs.”
“When she’s playing well she is flying over the court,” was Fissette’s full verdict on Halep. “It’s a natural thing, she was born with fast feet and her movement is very soft. It’s a big like watching Roger Federer: he is in a different category of course but he also doesn’t use much energy, his movement is soft and light.”