The Miami Open has fallen into a state of disrepair. Once heralded as tennis’ premier event away from the Grand Slams, the tournament’s ageing Key Biscayne complex has suffered from a sustained lack of investment in recent years, with grumbles about the locker rooms, bathrooms, crowded grounds and the temporary second stadium increasingly common.
But while the Tennis Center at Crandon Park crumbles into its old age, with Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross interested in moving the tournament 18 miles north to his team's stadium, tennis’ greatest star continues to glide gracefully into his. Roger Federer turns 36 this year and yet continues to remain at the very top of the sport he has dominated for so long.
His latest victory, a graceful straight sets triumph over Juan Martin del Potro, must rank up there with one of his finest in recent seasons. On Monday evening, the Swiss rolled back the years to beat the pre-tournament favourite 6-3, 6-4, in little over 80 minutes of sublime shot-making and flawless tennis.
Even the largely South American crowd had to bow to his majesty. Throughout the match they loudly chanted “Ole, Ole, Ole – DelPo, DelPo, DelPo” with Federer himself conceding: “Shortly before we walked out on the court, I could sense the atmosphere.”
But by the end of the non-contest, Federer’s serve unbroken, a loud chant of “Let’s go, Roger” rang out around the old court. A banner proclaiming ‘Roger, Peru loves u’ was unfurled. Another crowd converted.
“In the end it was really nice,” a smiling Federer added. “Great opponent, great crowd, great weather.”
It is already difficult to believe that at the start of the season, Federer had his lowest career ranking in 16 years and was fending off questions on his retirement plans, having taken five months to recover from knee surgery. It is even more difficult to believe that by the end of January, he was Australian Open champion for a fifth time, a five-set victory over Rafael Nadal making him the oldest man to win a Grand Slam since Ken Rosewall in 1972.
Any lingering suspicions that Federer’s triumph was largely down to good fortune – with both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic suffering surprise early exits in Melbourne – were shot down a few weeks later when Federer extended his Indian summer into Indian Wells, winning a 90th career title which moved him to 6th in the ATP rankings. And so to Miami, where he is aiming to complete the taxing Sunshine Double for a third time.
The youngster Frances Tiafoe was brushed aside in the second round, Del Potro in the third. Roberto Bautista Agut awaits in the fourth, a man who Federer has yet to drop a set against in his five previous meetings. The omens look good.
Key to his imperious form has been his newly aggressive backhand as well as a refined return of serve, an evolution of the kamikaze SABR technique he utilised two seasons ago. In recent tournaments, Federer has been taking the ball far earlier than is his custom, coming over the backhand more often. If the short-hop SABR felt like a drastic all-or-nothing power-play, his current method of returning does not leave him as vulnerable to passing shots down the line. It left Del Potro completely bewildered.
And then there are the factors outside of his control, such as the poor form of his main rivals. Djokovic has continued to suffer for form while Murray suffered an early exit in Melbourne before injuring his elbow, with compatriot Stan Wawrinka still struggling to compete with Federer at his finest. The stars have very much aligned for Federer in 2017.
Of course, Federer is far from assured of a third triumph in Key Biscayne; Wawrinka, Nadal and a newly consistent Nick Kyrgios all remain in the draw, while Federer acknowledged after his win against Del Potro on Monday that he was nervous of playing matches on successive days – something he has rarely managed since returning from his long injury lay-off.
But there is little doubt that the 35-year-old, seemingly against all odds, is playing at a level approaching his best once again. Given the woes of his rivals he will head into the 2017 French Open, rather improbably, as one of the tournament favourites. Quite unlike the Miami Open, it appears Federer is only getting better with age.