Greg Cote

Old warhorses Federer and Nadal give Miami Open the big, marquee finish it needed

Rafael Nadal, of Spain, shakes hands with Roger Federer, of Switzerland, after the men's singles final at the Miami Open tennis tournament, Sunday, April 2, 2017, in Key Biscayne, Fla. Federer won 6-3, 6-4.
Rafael Nadal, of Spain, shakes hands with Roger Federer, of Switzerland, after the men's singles final at the Miami Open tennis tournament, Sunday, April 2, 2017, in Key Biscayne, Fla. Federer won 6-3, 6-4. AP

This made it all better. It was the medicine this Miami Open needed: Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal in a redeeming, heavyweight championship match at a sold-out Crandon Park Tennis Center. Spanish and Swiss flags and passion were flying all over the stadium Sunday as two all-time greats with adoring fans renewed one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports.

This 37th all-time meeting of theirs and the men’s championship trophy went to Federer, 6-3, 6-4, 13 years after they played each other for the first time in 2004 on this same purple court tucked amid the verdant tropical foliage of Key Biscayne.

Who knew the rivalry that would grow from what we saw born? It is the unpredictable beauty of sports. Back then, Nadal was a 17-year-old kid we’d just met and Federer was just beginning to bloom in a career that would produce a men’s-record 18 major championships. On Sunday, they were the old warhorses in a young man’s sport, playing in the first over-30 men’s final in the tournament’s 33-year history.

When Nadal hit long on match point, Federer joyfully pounded the ball up into the upper deck and then lifted his arms to the sky in triumph. The Miami Open is a top-tier crown just below the majors level, and winning at age 35 over your most intense career-long rival makes it all the sweeter.

The final score might make it seem as if Federer won with ease. He did not. The match was taut as violin strings, a well-played exchange of held serves interrupted only by Federer breaking Nadal in the eighth game of the first set and ninth game of the second, just when you figured tiebreakers might be looming. One point was briefly delayed while an annoyed Nadal paused to look up as a small drone puttered high overhead — and there’s a sentence I never imagined writing.

Nadal did not blame the drone or the referee or anything else.

“I had opportunities to have the break before him,” as Nadal put it afterward. “A few things decided the match, and today was for him. It was a much closer result than the [score] said.”

For more than an hour and a half the two familiar sluggers traded excellence as fans called out “We love you, Roger!” and “C’mon, Rafa!” Their styles are different, Nadal the more flamboyant lefty who grunts with every shot and has a personality reflected by the fluorescent yellow shirt he wore, and Federer the cool assassin who wore dark green and plays silent as a mime.

There was no villain in this match, and no indifference, with both men beloved by their fans and respected by those who cheered for the other guy. At one point the adoring fans broke into “The Wave.” The love-in feeling transferred even to the curmudgeonly media, which applauded appreciatively, not usual, as Federer stepped into the postmatch interview room. “You’re not supposed to clap, thank you,” Federer scolded reporters with a smile.

This was the superstar finish the Miami Open dearly needed, after what had not been the smoothest of fortnights.

Serena Williams not playing because of a knee injury erased the biggest star by far on the women’s side, an eight-time Miami Open champ and local fan favorite.

The absence of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray becaause of elbow issues erased the tournament’s three-time reigning champ in Djokovic and the world’s No. 1-ranked player in Murray.

Viktoria Azarenka’s absence because of maternity leave meant this Miami Open was missing its past 10 men’s and women’s champions — a first.

The event also began under a cloud of speculation over its future, imperiled by Bruce Matheson’s lawsuits preventing $50 million in facility improvements. A quick aside on that: With due respect to Stephen Ross’ offer to take on the Miami Open in a new facility he’d build near Hard Rock Stadium, it would be a shame if this tournament ever left its four-decade home at this idyllic setting across the Rickenbacker Causeway.

“It really is a beautiful spot on the tour,” Federer said.

This Miami Open had suffered a low-watt women’s final this year to begin its championship weekend, with little-known Johanna Konta beating Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets, neither woman top-10 in the WTA rankings.

The tournament needed a huge finish to make us forget who wasn’t here, and Federer-Nadal proved up to the challenge. The Miami Open coined the rivalry “Fedal.” Why not “Naderer”? It’s hard to know who has earned top billing in the rivalry, considering Nadal still leads the all-time series 23-14, but Federer has now won the past four matches, including all three so far in 2017.

“We’ve had some epic matches over the years that I didn’t always enjoy,” Federer said.

Said Nadal of what makes this rivalry what it is: “When you play that many times, that’s the first thing. When you are No. 1 and 2 in the world for so long, that’s another thing.”

Today, Federer is ranked No. 6 in the ATP rankings and Nadal No. 7, but each is enjoying something a career renaissance after both had sort of been written off. That’s something else that made Sunday so special. It wasn’t Federer vs. Nadal renewing itself on fumes but rather on the rebound.

Federer in late 2016 dropped from the top 10 for the first time in 14 years, but winning the 2017 Australian Open (beating Nadal in the final) marked his first major win since 2012, and now, at 35, just became the oldest Miami Open men’s champion. He spoke Sunday of deferring to age, curtailing his schedule and picking his spots. His slide had spawned the whispered nickname “Fade-erer.” Now, though, the idea he might have more majors in him does not seem farfetched.

Nadal won the most recent of his 14 career majors in 2014, but he didn’t sound like a man ready to accept a slow fade. His tone had closer to a defiant edge in the opposite direction as he said: “I think I am close to what I need to be. I think I’m ready to win more titles.”

Thirteen years after Key Biscayne first put them on the same court, Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal continues to delight with history and excellence, two careers and one rivalry with plenty still to give.