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Not new but still relevant — Roger Federer is lucky because he is good

Matt Zemek



Steve Mitchell -- USA TODAY Sports

Roger Federer won another tennis tournament on Sunday.

He made another Masters final.

He made back-to-back finals in Indian Wells and Miami.

He made his third final of the year and won a second title before the end of March.

He is first in the ATP points race to London and basically has to breathe normally — and little more — to lock up another spot in the year-end championships, the ATP Finals. He will be a top-four seed at Wimbledon.

He is 18-2 this year.

All of this is unremarkable until you mention that Federer is 37 years and seven months old.

None of this is normal for a player this age. It is special.

The immediate cautionary note is that for Federer to do all this, he needed some help.

He needed Daniil Medvedev to make a very ordinary error on break point at 5-4, 30-40, in the first set of the round of 16 in Miami. He needed Kevin Anderson to be relatively rusty, having not played very much this season. He needed a week in Miami in which no one after Radu Albot could take a set off him. That lack of contentious, three-set matches over the past month in Indian Wells and Miami created a larger situation in which the strain on his body was minimal.

If Federer had endured a far more complicated Indian Wells, he might not have had enough in Miami to move this smoothly through the tournament after he escaped Albot, which was the truly impressive feat of his whole Miami Open (not in terms of caliber of opponent, but in terms of performing in a difficult situation).

It also has to be noted that Federer got lucky when he didn’t have to play Rafael Nadal in the Indian Wells semifinals. Imagine how much less fuel Federer might have had for Miami if he had to play a two-hour semifinal against Rafa, with everything a match against Rafa normally requires. That reduction in workload in California made Miami a lot more winnable for him.

Federer didn’t have to play Novak Djokovic at either tournament. He didn’t have to play Alexander Zverev or Juan Martin del Potro.

Luck was Federer’s friend, and no one has to pretend otherwise.

Yet: Federer was also extremely good in Miami, better than in Indian Wells. Federer played solid, low-error tennis and picked apart his opponents very cleanly once he got past Albot. He was sharper and less prone to second-set walkabouts in Miami compared to Indian Wells. He was clearly the best player in Miami after the Albot match.

Mentioning luck with Federer is hardly out of place. FOCUSING on the luck, however, entirely misses the point.

For Federer to be in this position to benefit from his luck, he has to be very good at his job at 37 and seven months.

Ivo Karlovic can still win matches and go deep into 250s at age 40. Feliciano Lopez and David Ferrer can still show their skills every now and then. Ferrer had a good Miami tournament, in fact. They are all north of 35 years old and can still raise eyebrows from time to time… but none of them are nearly as good as Federer right now. None of them could have used the various breaks Federer received this past month and turned them into back-to-back Masters finals with one title.

“I’d rather be lucky than good,” said legendary baseball player Lefty Gomez of the New York Yankees, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the most famous baseball franchise in sports history.

That might be true. Yet, Roger Federer shows that being good at a high level puts an athlete in position to be lucky, or more precisely, to derive maximum benefit from luck.

If Federer was as good as Ferrer today, we wouldn’t have a Miami Open title to talk about. We would be talking about losing in the round of 32 to Frances Tiafoe.

The luck is undeniable in Roger Federer’s career, and in this Miami title… but the luck is noticeable only because of the skill and longevity which turn that luck into a championship, not merely a round-of-16 or quarterfinal performance.

The championship won is the story. The luck is merely a small part of the subtext for Roger Federer.

The quality is the true engine and heart of the matter, as it has always been.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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