“Where has this guy been?”
As you watched Marius Copil make his way past Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev into the Basel ATP 500 final this weekend, pundits, commentators and fans were asking a version of that question – “This guy can play — how come I’d never paid much attention to him?”
Possibly because Marius Copil, a 6-6, 28-year-old Romanian with a passing resemblance to Ivan Ljubicic in both appearance and game style, hadn’t won many big matches in his career. Copil qualified for the main draw at Basel ranked 93 in the ATP, a few notches below a career high of 73 achieved earlier this year. He had just one win in a Grand Slam main draw – a 2015 win in Melbourne over Pablo Andujar – against 9 main draw losses, and 2 wins versus 18 defeats against Top 20 opponents in his career.
One of those wins was against Marin Cilic in Beijing 2012. Copil earned his first career victory over a top-10 player when he repeated the feat on Tuesday, overcoming the No. 3 seed 7-5, 7-6(2). Copil’s main weapon is a monster serve – he threw down a 232-kph deal early on against Cilic, and he can also get a mighty kick on his second deal. But he has a very consistent and versatile one-handed backhand – he hits heavy topspin with a similar motion to Ljubicic, but he can also slice the ball or punch a drive with a shorter motion, and he’s able to hit passing shots or lobs with a very short backswing. Or he can open his shoulders and give the ball a ride, as he did to bring up a match point in a three-set semifinal win over the No. 2 seed, Sascha Zverev. Copil finished that match with a forehand drive approach shot and a cool forehand volley winner to earn a chance to take on the tournament’s top seed, Roger Federer.
“Where is this guy’s game?”
Federer fans had begun muttering about their hero’s level of play as he struggled to find form on the grass courts in June, losing to Borna Coric in a Halle final and to Kevin Anderson in a marathon Wimbledon quarterfinal (after failing to convert a match point in the third set). Federer’s form on hardcourts was hardly less reassuring to the faithful – he made the Cincinnati final and the Shanghai semifinal, but surrendered both matches fairly tamely in straight sets to Novak Djokovic and Borna Coric. Federer was physically compromised in an upset loss to John Millman at the U.S. Open in sweltering conditions.
Now, in Basel, Federer scratched and clawed his way through the early rounds – unconvincing three-set wins over Filip Krajinovic and Gilles Simon, straight-set wins with visible wobbles against Jan Lennard Struff and Daniil Medvedev. In the final – against Copil, ranked 93 at the start of the week, surely a dream opponent – Federer was broken in his second service game, struggling to find his first serve or any rhythm on his groundstrokes.
Copil was serving bombs – one 243 kph (151 mph) ace qualifies in the top 10 fastest ATP serves recorded – and playing with confidence from the baseline. But Federer was able to break back and then significantly lift his level in the first-set tiebreak. Two shots determined the outcome of the set, one a poorly executed forehand dropshot by the Romanian, the second a blistering inside-in forehand drive by the Swiss on set point.
As in the first set, Federer gave up an early break; as in the first set he retrieved it. As the second set continued you could see Copil’s legs were getting heavier. Four challenges in one service game went against him: Federer gave the hometown fans one more moment of angst by going down 30-40 serving for the match, but three points later he was home, figuratively and literally.
Where has he been? Copil showed more than enough this week to promise an intriguing 2019. Federer looked vulnerable all week, but ended it with 9 and 99 – his 9th title at his home tournament, his 99th overall. As Marius Copil can surely attest, 4 ATP titles and 3 other finals is a fine career. For Federer, it’s his 2018 haul – seen as a disappointment by some fans and commentators who expect greatness every week.
Roger Federer’s game is still a work in progress, measured against standards where genius is expected. Marius Copil’s is a fresh delight after 10 years as a pro.
Tennis is a kingdom with many riches.