Let’s be blunt: Roger Federer did not play well on Saturday in his first and only Miami Open match of 2018 against Thanasi Kokkinakis. The Australian qualifier was not brilliant on a sustained level, but good enough to handle this version of Federer. Kokkinakis exhibited the essential virtue not all Federer opponents demonstrate: He shrugged off mistakes — he played the next point. He did not allow one error to bleed into the rest of his service games. This is why — and how — the underdog overcame a number of 0-15 and 15-30 deficits to hold serve against Federer, close out the second set, and then win a third-set tiebreaker.
Kokkinakis PLAYED at a decent level. He COMPETED at an extremely high level, able to take advantage of Federer’s scratchy form. He earned his victory, and after registering such an achievement, the youngster might be able to develop his game in the ways he needs to. That is certainly a good story… but it is not the most reassuring element of that match. Kokkinakis is still a tabula rasa in tennis terms. We don’t know where his road will lead. Accordingly, a sense of rich theatrical texture has not yet visited his career.
That applies to the man he ushered out of Miami on Saturday.
When Roger Federer loses a non-clay match at a Masters 1000 event or a major, it is always headline news purely as a media-based reality. With the rest of the Big Four either injured or (in Novak Djokovic’s case) already out of the tournament, Federer’s loss meant that the Big Four failed to win a single match at a Masters 1000 tournament, an extraordinarily rare occurrence this decade. Miami will become a Bercy-style free-for-all on the ATP side. This is the kind of Masters 1000 tournament men’s tennis will begin to create on a more regular basis in the coming years if the Big Four (plus Stan Wawrinka and others such as Kei Nishikori or Milos Raonic) can’t maintain good health or a consistent presence in the sport.
What does this mean for Federer? This is where the reassurance comes into the picture… but not for reasons his fans (or any tennis fans) might first think.
Tennis players are human beings, not gods. Deifying Federer is and has been a problem in tennis media over the years. Television personalities and match commentators assign god-like qualities to him or discuss him with a reverence not appropriate for public consumption. The way many people in the tennis content industry — spoken, written, tweeted — discuss Federer robs him of his own humanity and his own limitations. Thinking his wins are automatic and his losses are nothing less than crises do not portray a full human person. They portray a world in which Federer floats above the clouds and disruptions of his championship aspirations are always earthquakes which shake the foundations of tennis itself.
In the past two years — with Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Raonic, and others being injured, and Rafael Nadal still failing to solve his post-2011 Wimbledon woes or his Australian Open injury curse — Federer has piled up three major titles. He has inevitably recalled the era when, if major tournaments were being played and Roland Garros was NOT the location, Federer scooped up all the loot.
Before I became a tennis writer, I was a frequent commenter at Peter Bodo’s Tennis World blog. Some people might know that at the time (2006-2009), Andrew Burton — one of the foremost Federer experts on this planet — contributed to Tennis.com and helped manage the Tennis World site for Mr. Bodo. If you were ever a part of that community — and I know plenty of people on #TennisTwitter who once interacted with me on that blog — one of the phrases which constantly surfaced in relationship to Federer was “aura of inevitability.”
It became Gospel among fans of Federer’s opponents that Roger was simply going to win everything not played on clay, especially in 2006 and 2007. People would hand him victories before he began playing a match, but even if a match became difficult, everyone in that chat room or comments section trusted Federer to pull through, so total was his command of the sport on non-clay surfaces. (Side note: Everything which applied to Federer on non-clay surfaces back then also applied to Rafael Nadal on clay.)
We all understood what “aura of inevitability” meant, and to be sure, the phrase was useful at times, especially when Federer fans would freak out just because Federer lost one set to Tommy Robredo in a best-of-five match. It did sometimes represent a way of reducing panic among Federer fans.
Yet, on balance, the “aura of inevitability” also had the effect of making Federer’s achievements automatic, taking such excellence for granted. This is part of the process of removing the humanity from the person achieving at a high level. This is also how human beings forget something very simple: Tennis is hard and physically demanding, even for a man with 20 majors and 147 career finals.
The soothing reassurance found in Federer’s loss is not just that he is human and limited, but that there were real tradeoffs made — and prices paid — for his decision to play Rotterdam.
Let’s remember how beneficial it was for Federer a year ago to have lost to Evgeny Donskoy in Dubai. That loss prevented Federer from playing a large number of matches in the Middle East. It made his body relatively fresher for Indian Wells and especially Miami, which he won.
This year, Federer played Rotterdam so he could personally achieve World No. 1, instead of having the ranking fall into his lap when Nadal pulled out of Acapulco. As I have said in previous articles, the value of being able to do that — to win No. 1 by winning a match — brought immense personal satisfaction to him. It also gave tennis a global publicity avalanche, which can only be seen as a good thing. There was value to be found in playing Rotterdam, and Federer mined that value to the fullest possible extent.
Yet, Federer sacrificed something in exchange for being able to do that: He was clearly mentally tired at the end of Indian Wells. This hardly excuses some of his ornery behavior, but it certainly explains it to a point. Playing Rotterdam didn’t hurt Federer at Indian Wells — he came within one point of winning the tournament. The fact that he didn’t win one more point doesn’t (and shouldn’t) change the larger wisdom of his decision. One point should very rarely, if ever, affect how we view a given tennis decision in terms of a season-long schedule.
Where Federer’s Rotterdam decision truly came into play was in Miami. It is true that Federer played some scratchy tennis against Roberto Bautista Agut and Tomas Berdych last year, but he was physically ready for a very long semifinal against Nick Kyrgios and a final against Rafael Nadal. This year, because of the full week of tennis in Rotterdam, Miami was always going to be a very tough tournament for Federer. The fact that he played poorly in his first match is not that surprising. The fact that he didn’t find a late spark of quality to dig out the match is a little more surprising, but it doesn’t change the larger reality of his situation.
Federer made a tradeoff — Rotterdam and World No. 1 in exchange for a poorer result in Miami. Indian Wells was one point short of being a complete success; Federer competed as well as he possibly could there, so no regrets are warranted. Miami is what he truly gave up in order to have his moment in Rotterdam one month earlier.
It remains true that tennis is difficult and requires its participants — no matter how accomplished — to pay a price for various decisions. Roger Federer is an extraordinary and iconic athlete enjoying a richly fruitful period of his career… but he is not exempt from limits on mind, body and spirit.
This loss in Miami reminds us how human he is, no matter how often some commentators try to make him into a God-King.
It is reassuring that Federer, as much as tennis does need him while other stars are injured, is still human after all.