Roger Federer has been wearing the same mint-colored shirt to all his Miami Open matches this year; but a soccer goalkeeper’s jersey might be more fitting for Sunday’s final match against defending champion John Isner, the 6-10 American with the booming serve who has unleashed a tournament-high 98 aces.
Isner has held serve 56 of 60 games so far (93 percent), and won all 10 sets, nine of them in tiebreakers.
Federer, the 20-time Grand Slam champion, says he is a big fan of Isner’s game and equates playing against him to a soccer goalkeeper facing a penalty shootout. The Swiss, known for his exquisite shot-making, is looking forward to the challenge of trying to guess where Isner’s rocket of a serve will land.
“Big fan of his,” Federer said of Isner. “I actually really enjoy watching him play. I know some guys don’t but I love it. I honestly love big servers. To watch them and see if they’re going to ace every second or third point. For me that’s exciting. It’s like a penalty shootout in soccer, it’s just in tennis. I quite enjoy it.
“For me I’ll be the goalie. You just hope that the stars align, that you pick the right side, that he picks the wrong side, that maybe he misses a serve, that you can put him in uncomfortable situations time and time again, and at the end somehow you find a way.”
Federer, 37, and Isner, 33, combined are the oldest finalists in tournament history.
They have faced each other seven times, and Federer holds a 5-2 edge. The last time they played, in Paris in November 2015, Isner won 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 in the third round. Federer is 15-1 lifetime against Americans in finals, with his only loss coming to Andre Agassi in the 2002 Miami championship.
Federer is a three-time Miami Open champion and has a 17-2 record this year. He won a title in Dubai in January and was runner-up to Dominic Thiem at Indian Wells, Calif.
He said he finds it more “fun” to watch a big server than a long rally.
“What I like about it is just to see the sheer power and accuracy that big guys have on their serve,” Federer said. “I just enjoy watching them to see how many times can they clock service winners? How many times can they serve their way out of trouble?
“I think it’s more fun than a guy rallying, and then, at the end after a 25-shot rally, somehow winning the point. I think it’s more fun if he hits the spot every time, but the guy looks on the other side, Man, what can I do? Nothing.”
Isner suspects that Federer will use the chip return he used to beat 6-8 big server Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinal.
“Kevin’s a big guy, and Roger, with that chip return, it’s something that he can do in his sleep,” Isner said. “He just gets it down low and gets it short. He almost forces his opponent to come in. At that point, you have to hit a great approach shot and a good volley to win the point, because he’s going to have a look at a pass if you make the shot, and it’s very difficult to do.
“Maybe there are some things tactically, especially on second serves, that I’ll try to avoid. Not go into his backhand as much. But he can do that, as I said, in his sleep. It’s an incredibly high-talent shot that not many players can do, but he can do it all the time.”
Both players beat Canadian teenagers to reach the final. Federer cruised past Denis Shapovalov 6-2, 6-4. Isner worked harder to get a 7-6(3), 7-6(4) win over Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Isner said before the Miami Open that he didn’t expect to defend his title. Now he is one win away.
“I believe that any tournament I enter I can win because of how disruptive I can be and because of how well I can serve at times,” he said. “I’m not surprised that I’m sitting here back in the finals again. But I was just going on pure math and just the number of Masters Series events I have played and the number of events I have won: one. You just crunch those numbers.”