World No. 3 Federer withdraws from Miami Open and his “lucky loser’’ replacement becomes lucky winner

Horacio Zeballos beats Juan Martin del Potro 6-4, 6-4 at the Miami Open tennis tournament on Key Biscayne, Friday, March 25, 2016. Zeballos did not qualify to play in the tournament but was brought in after Roger Federer dropped out with an illness.
Horacio Zeballos beats Juan Martin del Potro 6-4, 6-4 at the Miami Open tennis tournament on Key Biscayne, Friday, March 25, 2016. Zeballos did not qualify to play in the tournament but was brought in after Roger Federer dropped out with an illness. emichot@miamiheraldstaff

It was a topsy-turvy day of the unexpected Friday at the Miami Open.

First, Swiss superstar and world No. 3 Roger Federer withdrew from the tournament with a stomach virus.

Then, Federer’s replacement, 112th-ranked “lucky loser’’ Horacio Zeballos defeated 2009 U.S. Open champion and Argentine countryman Juan Martin del Potro 6-4, 6-4 after being told 30 minutes before the match that he would be playing.

Finally, qualifier Elena Vesnina of Russia raced to a 6-0 first-set advantage in 29 minutes against 13th-ranked and three-time Miami Open winner Venus Williams, dropped a second-set tiebreaker but came back to upset the older sis of No. 1 Serena, 6-0, 6-7 (5), 6-2.

The one expected result among megastars: world No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s 6-3, 6-3 victorious cruise past Kyle Edmund of Great Britain in a night match that took only an hour and 20 minutes.

“I am very sorry that I have to pull out of the Miami Open with a stomach virus,’’ Federer, 34, said in a written statement. “I feel bad for the tournament and the fans as I have rarely ever had to withdraw at such short notice. I have not felt great for a few days and unfortunately it got worse in the last 24 hours.

“I was really excited to have my comeback in Miami but I am in no condition to play.’’

Federer would have played in his first match following arthroscopic knee surgery Feb. 3 to repair a torn meniscus. Instead, it was Zeballos, 30, who got the surprise nod to face del Potro, a former world No. 4 who has dropped to No. 366 after repeated wrist surgeries. Del Potro said Friday he is struggling with pain.

Zeballos, however, couldn’t have been happier.

“I was just sitting in the locker room chatting with my family and my parents, and the guy from the ATP came and he told me, ‘Roger, he pulled out, so you’re in,’ Zeballos said.

“So, I went to warm up 20 minutes and then to prepare the match. I was of course very, very happy and like you can see on the court I was playing so relaxed and happy because I was not expecting it.’’

When asked if it turned out better that he barely had time to think about what was happening, Zeballos said, “Of course it was better. Especially for me, because del Potro…didn’t know who he was going to play. He was preparing to play against Federer and then I was there. I think it was better for me than for him.’’

In tennis, the “lucky loser’’ is the highest-ranked player who has lost in the qualifying rounds. There were actually two other lucky losers this week who got chosen to play ahead of Zeballos – Rogerio Dutra Silva replaced Robin Haase, who withdrew with a knee injury; and Jared Donaldson replaced Martin Klizan, who withdrew with a foot injury. Dutra Silva and Donaldson both lost in the first round.

Zeballos, whose lone ATP victory was over an ailing Rafael Nadal in 2013 at Vina del Mar in Chile, said he was supposed to leave Miami on Saturday for an ATP Challenger tournament in Mexico. Now he’ll be on Key Biscayne facing 65th-ranked Fernando Verdasco of Spain in the next round – likely on Sunday. He is 0-2 against Verdasco.

“I just know that I’m in the tournament again,’’ Zeballos said. “I didn’t have time to see the draw. This is the first time I’m a lucky loser and I played and I won.”

Zeballos described the fans Friday as “beautiful,’’ even if they were cheering heartily for del Potro. “I was very happy because there were a lot of South American people and Argentinian people watching the match and I could hear ‘Vamos!’ and it was really nice.’’

The tournament announced Friday that day session seven drew a record attendance of 17,589.

World No. 5 Nadal, like Federer an immensely popular player, spoke at a news conference just minutes after Federer’s announcement. Nadal, who opens play against Damir Dzumhur of Bosnia in the third match of the day on Stadium Court, lamented Federer’s departure.

Rafael Nadal spoke to the media about his love for Miami's latino and hispanic communities and the questions professional tennis will have to answer moving forward.

“Just sorry for him,’’ the Spaniard said. “Sorry for the tournament, for the fans, for everybody. It’s obvious that tournaments with Roger [are] always better. Is good that it’s stomach problem, not the knee. Obviously terrible news for the tournament.’’

Also disappointing for the Miami Open fans who heartily support the Williams sisters was the loss by No. 10 seed Venus to Vesnina.

“It was definitely a physical match,’’ Williams said. “She played amazing tennis. All credit to her. She came out with nothing to lose and just everything worked for her.’’