It was the moment 19-year-old Frances Tiafoe had tried to imagine so many times over his tennis career — standing at the net for the coin toss in front of a packed stadium, his idol, Roger Federer, across the net.
On Saturday afternoon, in the second round of the Miami Open, Tiafoe’s dream was realized, and it was even more overwhelming than he envisioned.
“At first I was trying to tell myself, ‘Oh, it’s another match, it’s another match,’ then we go to the coin toss, and you’re looking at him, and I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s Roger Federer,’ ’’ Tiafoe said, smiling.
This wasn’t just another match for Tiafoe. It was a career highlight, and though Federer won 7-6 (7-2), 6-3, the fact that the 101st-ranked American teenager pushed the 18-time Grand Slam champion to a tiebreaker and made him sweat was satisfying.
“I’m not upset at all,” Tiafoe said. “I had some chances, broke him early in the second. I really played good tennis and this helps me a lot to feel I can play with guys like that. You’re playing the greatest player of all time, and to say you were across the net from him at such a young age, 19, so early in my career, it definitely means the world to me.”
Although they had never played a match against each other, Federer had hit with Tia foe twice — at the French Open and the U.S. Open — so Federer said he was not entirely surprised to see a powerful, go-for-broke opponent across the court.
“Back then he surprised me, but I’m not going to get surprised [again] because I saw the power he had, the explosiveness he had, how easily he can generate pace,” Federer said. “I think he’s going to be really good. … I think the question was always how was he going to come out. Seemed like he was fearless, no problem, good serving, taking the ball early, making the plays.
“That I like to see, when a younger player comes out that he really feels he has nothing to lose. I hope he’s going to learn a lot from a match like this … playing on center court with a lot of people, under pressure, saving break points, making break points, playing breakers. That’s what it’s about, and it should feed a player like him with a lot of energy moving forward.”
Federer won his first 20 service points, won 84 percent of his first serves over the match. He slammed a volley that nearly knocked Tiafoe over (not intentionally), a reminder to Tiafoe that polite as he might be, Federer is intensely competitive.
With the victory, Federer improved to 14-1 this season, including trophies at the Australian Open and Indian Wells, California, which is remarkable considering he is a 35-year-old father of four and took the last six months of 2016 off to deal with a knee injury.
Federer said he hoped both players walked away “quite happy” from the match.
Tiafoe smiled when he heard that.
“Well, one is more happy than the other,” he said.
Federer advances to the third round, where he will play Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, who beat Robin Haase of the Netherlands 6-2, 6-4 in the rain-delayed late match Saturday.
Federer and del Potro were supposed to play early in the 2016 Miami Open, but Federer withdrew from the tournament with a stomach flu. Both players were coming off injuries, and it was a highly anticipated match.
“I would love to play against him,” Federer said of del Potro. “I’m happy for him with his comeback, winning at Davis Cup. I should have played him here last year, but I was sick. That was a pity. It’s better to play him this time around when we’re both healthy. We’ve had some epic matches against each other — semis at the French, Olympic semis, finals at the U.S. Open. You name it, we’ve had some really good ones.”
In other matches Saturday, top seed Stan Wawrinka won his opening match against Horacio Zeballos, 6-3, 6-4. Americans John Isner and Sam Querrey won in straight sets, as did 19-year-old German Alexander Zverev.
On the women’s side, No. 6-seeded Garbine Muguruza beat No. 30 Zhang Shuai 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a 158th-ranked wild card, upset No. 17 Anastasia Pavlyuchenko 4-6, 6-0, 6-3.