Before Saturday in Dubai, James Scott Connors was the only other man in the Open Era of professional tennis to win at least 100 titles. Now, Jimbo can move over. He has company. Roger Federer won his 100th career singles championship with a strong 6-4, 6-4 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the United Arab Emirates.
Back in the top four, back in the thick of the ATP Race to London, back where he belongs — it was a familiar and reassuring week for Federer, who turned his Australian Open loss to Tsitsipas into a bounce-back opportunity. Federer had an extra week off as a result of his unwelcome defeat at the hands of Tsitsipas in Melbourne, but he studied hard, performed well, and answered every challenge the 20-year-old Greek threw at him on Saturday.
Federer would prefer to have beaten Tsitsipas at a major tournament, but he will take this title with pleasure and savor an achievement which magnifies not only his quality, but his longevity.
Those two things — quality and longevity — form the heart of most conversations about Federer’s tennis these days. Tsitsipas is part of that story.
Federer is a box of chocolates right now: You never know what you’re going to get on a given day. His serve isn’t the cause for concern it was last autumn, but on a larger, general level, this is not the first three months of 2017, and no one should expect THAT version of Federer to reemerge. (Reminder: Federer could surprise us. Yet, let’s not think that “magic” will continue to be his default setting.)
At the Australian Open in January and in Dubai a month later, this basic context underlies the journey Federer is making in 2019: He will be brilliant in some matches, struggle in others, and play some moderately good but imperfect matches in still other situations. He won’t soar above the clouds. He won’t be in JesusFed mode throughout whole tournaments as he was at Indian Wells in 2017.
Federer is still a prime contender — though not the favorite (that’s Novak Djokovic on hardcourts and Rafael Nadal on clay) — at the biggest tournaments in men’s tennis. What will determine how deep he goes is if he can survive the days when he is vulnerable.
In Australia, Federer played a razor-close match and couldn’t pull it out. He would have fancied his chances against a tired Roberto Bautista Agut in the quarterfinals, but Tsitsipas fended him off. That match meant several hundred points and another major semifinal appearance.
This week, Federer got through the matches in which his level dipped to noticeably lower depths, especially the opener against Philipp Kohlschreiber. Winning four straight points to steal the first set against Marton Fucsovics in the quarters went a long way toward making this week more manageable and successful.
Federer might win tournaments this year in which he easily could have lost midway through. He will probably lose a few tournaments in which he played great matches at some point and looked formidable on a given day… but not for the full week or fortnight.
Federer’s capacity to play great tennis is still as considerable as it has been. Recent podcast guest Sasa Ozmo agreed with this central thesis when he talked to Saqib Ali after the Australian Open.
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— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) February 5, 2019
The difference between now and the first months of 2017 — or other earlier periods, such as the summer of 2015, when Federer played a lot of great tennis in bunches — is that Federer’s ability to replicate great tennis in three or four straight matches is not as pronounced.
If Federer can successfully escape the close matches which are likely to continue to come his way, he can still win titles and make significant finals.
Don’t expect it all the time, but of course, be prepared for anything with this box-of-chocolates tennis player who just picked the perfect flavor — No. 100 — in Dubai.