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Dads Federer, Isner ground Canadian teens, advance to Miami Open final

Roger Federer returns ball hit by Denis Shapovalov in the semi-finals at the 2019 Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Friday, March, 29, 2019.
Roger Federer returns ball hit by Denis Shapovalov in the semi-finals at the 2019 Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Friday, March, 29, 2019. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

A pair of precocious Canadian teenagers aimed to shake up the tennis establishment in the Miami Open men’s semifinals on Friday.

But they ran into Roger Federer and John Isner, a couple of dads in their 30s who have 34 combined years of pro experience and have won four Miami Open titles between them. Although both teens showed glimpses of why they’ve created such a stir, the message at the end of the night was clear – the fathers still know best.

Twenty-time Grand Slam champion Federer and defending Miami Open champion Isner will meet Sunday afternoon in the final. The women’s final is Saturday at 1 between Ashleigh Barty of Australia and Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic.

Federer needed a little over an hour Friday night to get past powerful 19-year-old lefty Denis Shapovalov 6-2, 6-4. Federer won 67 points to Shapovalov’s 45, and won 91 percent of his first service points.

After the victory, during his courtside interview, Federer told the adoring crowd that before the match he informed his 9-year-old twin daughters Myla and Charlene that Shapovalov wasn’t born yet in 1998 when Federer turned pro.

“They were like, `Whaaaat?’ That guy is really young,’’ Federer recalled, smiling. “Or, I’m really old. It definitely gives you an extra pep going against teenagers, no doubt about it.”

Federer is Shapovalov’s idol, and the teen said playing against him was a dream come true.

“Tough loss but it was enjoyable to be out there with your idol on the court,” Shapovalov said. “It was kind of surreal. I did what I could...He’s got every shot mastered. I don’t think he has any weaknesses. That’s why he’s the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).”

Asked what was his favorite moment in the match, Shapovalov grinned and said: “The warmup.”

In the first men’s semi, baby-faced 18-year-old qualifier Felix Auger-Aliassime, the youngest male semifinalist in the tournament’s 35-year history, finally showed signs of his youth and inexperience after a remarkable run. He double-faulted serving for both sets, and paid the price, losing 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-4) to Isner.

The afternoon match inside Hard Rock Stadium ended with the 6-10 American Isner punctuating his victory with a 140 mph ace, his 21st of the match and 98th of the tournament. Isner, who turns 34 next month,

“I did the best that I could,” said the young Canadian, who was 5-0 against Top 20 players before Friday. “I probably did the best of all the players that played him this week. I just couldn’t serve from my part. It’s a chance you can’t miss, serving two times for the set, and just -- I don’t know. It’s just terrible.”

Auger-Aliassime conceded that he was nervous. He arrived at the Miami Open as a relatively-unknown 57th-ranked qualifier. By the time he reached Friday’s semifinal, he had moved up to No. 33, tennis announcers learned how to pronounce his name, and he was being stopped for autographs around the tournament grounds.

It was the first time two teens reached the semis of an event this big since 2007, when then-19-year-olds Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray made the last four at Miami and Indian Wells, Calif.

“Yeah, for sure, nerves,” Auger-Aliassime said, explaining his untimely double-faults. “It’s like I caught a virus or something. I couldn’t put a second serve anymore. Even the first serve, I mean, if you put it in, you don’t have to hit the second serve. Yeah, that’s just very tough to swallow.”

Ninth-ranked Isner, on the other hand, looked calm the entire match and insisted he feels no pressure to defend his title – the only Masters title of his 13-year career. He has learned after so many years on tour not to get too high or too low. Becoming a father six months ago gave him another dose of perspective.

“I think someone told me if I lost my first match here, I’d be 12 in the world...like, big deal, you know. That’s really good,” he said. “So, I just looked at it like that. There is no pressure, really. It’s just another tournament. Just because I did well in it last year -- I mean, if this was eight years ago, I might have felt that pressure. But now, I don’t ever think about defending points or anything like that. I used to worry about that, but I don’t anymore.”

After Friday’s win, Isner planned to go back to his hotel room and watch the NCAA Tournament. He picked Duke to win it all.

Asked what Duke star Zion Williamson might be like as a tennis player, Isner smiled and said: “Well, that would be scary. It’s like LeBron, if he chose to play any other sport, he’d excel in it. Wouldn’t matter what it is. I think Zion is cut from the same cloth.”

As for playing Federer in the final, Isner said: “Any time you play against him in a big stage, a tournament like this, is amazing. I played him in the finals of Indian Wells about seven years ago, I think. He beat me there. It will be a big moment to play him again.”

Federer said he knows what to expect from Isner – a huge serve – and he has always been a fan of the game’s biggest servers.

“Playing those guys is like a shootout in soccer,” Federer said. “I’ll be the goalie and try to get as many balls back as I can.”

Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, and has been the University of Miami basketball beat writer for 20 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.
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