The moment the Miami Open men’s draw was released, most fans likely began rooting for a Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal final.
Tournament officials were surely secretly hoping for that, too, as the two biggest headliners in the sport are back in the spotlight after recovering from injuries. What could be better than another showdown between the elegant Swiss and the go-for-broke Spaniard, a rematch of the five-set Australian Open final, which Federer won.
They got their wish after tennis’ polite elder statesman Federer outlasted fiery 21-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios 7-6 (11-9), 6-7 (9-11), 7-6 (7-5) in an electrifying Friday night semifinal that stretched three hours and 11 minutes and will go down as one of the most memorable matches in tournament history.
Three hours. Three tiebreaks. The most popular man in the sport vs. the misunderstood villain.
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The Key Biscayne forecast for Sunday afternoon is 84 and sunny, perfect conditions for a sizzling championship match.
But it’s hard to imagine it will be more exciting than the Federer-Kyrgios match, a display of superb tennis from two players with extremely different styles and personalities. Kyrgios blasted serves of 130 mph and 140 mph over and over and over, using his explosiveness and power to get himself out of jams against the crafty veteran Federer.
And Federer showed that he’s still got plenty of fight, not just pretty shots, left in him after all these years.
The one and only time they played each other, on the clay of Madrid in 2015, Kyrgios outlasted Federer 6-7 (7-2), 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (14-12). Federer didn’t forget how it felt to lose that day.
“I know I can't always show my fighting skills because everything else sort of takes over,” Federer said. “It's great winning this way, especially of course I remember the loss against him few years ago, which I think ended up being 14-12 in the breaker in the third.
“It was rough. It was the birthday of my boys. I wasn't with them and I had that match. Anyway, it was just a bad day. It was nice to get this one tonight.”
The sellout crowd showered Federer with love all night, and jumped on Kyrgios early, jeering and whistling his antics. They booed when he threw his racket at his chair after losing the first set. They booed when he questioned calls.
There were times some fans disrupted play, which made Kyrgios even more irritated. Although he has learned to harness his emotions more than he used to, he still explodes every now and then.
As Kyrgios served at 5-4 in the deciding tiebreak, someone in the crowd yelled “out” as he set up for a forehand shot. He mishit the shot wide, turned to stare at the fan and yelled: “Oh my god, shut up!” and followed that up with obscenities.
He double-faulted on the next point, and then Federer clinched the match. Federer raised his fists to the sky and screamed: “YESSSSSSSSS!”
Meanwhile, across the court, Kyrgios slammed his racket to the ground a few times and left the mangled heap on the court as fans booed.
Kyrgios said afterward that he was not surprised Federer had the fans on his side.
“Wasn't expecting less, to be honest,” Kyrgios said. “He's obviously the crowd favorite anywhere he plays obviously with what he's done for the game. But I thought I was responding well to the crowd...He was playing great. Yeah, the crowd was obviously on his side, but I think I have to win a little bit more to start getting them on my side.”
Asked what he thinks he showed the tennis world with his performance Friday night, Kyrgios said: “I showed a lot of fight. I thought I competed for every point.
“Obviously, I'm an emotional guy. I had some ups and up and downs, bit of a roller coaster. Ultimately, I think I put in a good performance. I thought the crowd would've enjoyed watching it, people at home would've enjoyed watching it. But, I wouldn't be surprised if they found something bad to say about me.”
Federer had said even before the match that he was very impressed with Kyrgios’ game, and that respect grew with every winner off the Aussie’s racket Friday night.
“He's clearly got a big-time game; he has one of the best serves in the game,” Federer said. “He's got great focus now on his serve, which I like to see. It's just going to take time for him to really be able to focus point for point and improve that.
“But the crowds jump (on him) pretty quickly. But it makes for a good atmosphere, I guess at the end of the day, so it's not all that bad. I think he’s good for the game.”
Kyrgios said facing Federer remains the greatest challenge in the game. The 18-time Grand Slam champion improved to 18-1 this season.
“His serve and first shot is I think by far the best on tour. I've played all the Top 4, a lot of the top guys, and his first two shots, it's so hard to do anything against,” Kyrgios said.
“You feel like you're making a return, and then he's right on it and hits a winner. You don't get that much rhythm. He's a great player. There were similarities (with the 2015 match). We haven't played a set that hasn't gone 7-6, so, yeah, similarities.”
Federer will have a day to rest, and then will be back on the court against his greatest rival, Nadal.
Nadal booked his spot early Friday afternoon, beating swirling winds and the unseeded Italian Fabio Fognini 6-1, 7-5 in a fairly drama-free match that took only an hour and a half. He relied on his serve to get past the pesky Fognini. Nadal won 89 percent of his first-serve points, and survived a second set in which Fognini made as many errors as spectacular shots.
It had been 10 years since an unseeded player reached the semifinals, and Fognini made it interesting in the second set. He kept Nadal off balance with some perfectly-placed drop shots and blistering forehand winners. But it seemed for every great shot Fognini made, an unforced error followed within the next few points. By the end of the match, he had 38 unforced errors to 12 for Nadal.
“There was a lot of wind, and with Fabio, who is a player that is able to combine great points with mistakes, then the match became strange,” said Nadal. “Not a lot of rhythm, and the end of the second set was rough.”
Fognini, the husband of 2015 U.S. Open champion Flavia Pennetta, conceded that he made the first set too easy for Nadal. He also was bothered by pain in his wrist and heel, but didn’t want to use that as an excuse.
“I was missing a lot of balls, that’s for sure,” he said. “I am giving like a present the first set to Rafa Nadal 6-1...I was playing really bad. Second set, I started to play my tennis. I think he was feeling that I was feeling better and better and a few points would decide the match.”
Nadal then spent the remainder of the day and evening resting and awaiting the identity of his opponent.
Would it be Federer, the 35-year-old father of four whose resurgence this season has surprised even himself? Or would it be the 21-year-old temperamental, rebellious Australian Kyrgios, a supremely talented player with a booming serve, an all-around game, and a personality that fans either love or hate?
Even their bags are different, said the ESPN commentators. Federer’s is neat, as expected. Kyrgios’ is messy.
Although he lost, Kyrgios showed he is a force to be reckoned with in the future. But by no means does he feel he is playing his best tennis.
“I have a lot of work to do,” Kyrgios said. “I’m still 16 in the world. There are 15 players better than me.”
Two of them will slug it out for the Miami Open trophy on Sunday.
Note : The men’s doubles final Saturday features Americans Jack Sock and Nicholas Monroe against the team of Lukasz Kubot (Poland) and Marcelo Melo (Brazil).