MIAMI — There are no away games for the beloved international tennis icon Roger Federer.
It’s a truism that was gamely tested early in his match with Juan Martin del Potro at the Miami Masters on Monday. Miami fans love Federer. But because so many of them are Spanish speakers, they have a special fondness for fellow Latin Americans.
That includes del Potro, the 28-year-old gentle Giant from Argentina. It certainly didn’t hurt him that his backstory would melt hearts in Miami, even if he had grown up in Reykjavik and spoke Icelandic. Del Potro’s spectacular early career was derailed by a series of wrist injuries and surgeries shortly after he claimed his one — and thus far only — Grand Slam title, way back in 2009.
The man he beat in that US Open final? Federer.
In just the second game on Monday, del Potro served to level the score at 1-1. He and Federer both raced to the net. When del Potro won the dazzling six-shot, point-blank volley exchange, the crowd erupted, and the chant reverberated through the packed stadium:
Ole, Ole, Ole, Delpo, Delpo, Delpo!
Cagey veteran that he is, Federer was hardly surprised. And he knew he had to take the crowd out of the match.
“Shortly before we walked out on the court, I could sense the atmosphere,” Federer said later. “I told myself to be prepared for something different, and it was. If match had gone differently — three sets or tiebreakers — it would have been really epic. But just like this, it was really nice. Great opponent, great crowd, great weather.”
He might have added, “Great win.” Even, “Easy win.”
Federer swept del Potro, 6-3, 6-4, with the same brand of razor-sharp tennis that has powered his remarkable resurgence all year. His serve was never broken (he survived four break points, while converting two of seven) and won 60 percent of his second serve points — compared to an anemic 43 percent by del Potro.
By the time it was over, Federer had a large portion of the crowd chanting “Let’s go, Roger.” And among the various banners and Argentine flags, one sign seemed to sum up the prevailing feeling: “Roger, Peru Loves U.”
Del Potro, ranked No. 34, is still trying to recover the form that once landed him at No. 4, and this match vividly demonstrated why the gap is so large. As del Potro said of Federer in his postmatch press conference, “He’s the best of tennis history. I think today he made the big points better than me.”
Sometimes, easily forgotten points reveal as much as the ones that clearly shape a match. This was one of those days. Del Potro did a good job escaping five break points, but the way Federer arrived at those break points was striking. He earned every one with a dazzling shot — a rifled backhand service, winner, a crisp passing shot, one of those familiar inside-out forehand winners.
It was glorious Sunday tennis on a regular Monday afternoon in Florida. It’s a concept we might have to get accustomed to — if Federer and Rafael Nadal continue to resist the siren song of the No. 1 ranking. Federer already has reconciled himself to the task of playing a 14-time Grand Slam champion such as Nadal or a raging hellion such as Nick Kyrgios well before the box seats fill up on the weekend.
“The rankings are less important for me now, and for Rafa too,” Federer said. “Maybe other guys in the future. So I have to expect tougher draws.”
Whatever comes his way, Federer will not be moved off his resolve to put his health, family and enjoyment of the game above all other considerations. He said he learned a valuable lesson when he overplayed in 2016 and hobbled through Wimbledon, losing in the semis on a damaged knee.
Federer looks back on the four months leading to that loss as a dark period, when he had “a cloud in my head.” He admitted that he was stressed out and obsessing on his knee and treatment, rather than enjoying his life, “focusing on nice weather, nice crowd, and [the] good opponent you’re facing.”
Federer said he won’t make that mistake again. One reason you can bet he won’t is because of the way he has been playing, thanks to taking the difficult decision to take off the second half of 2016.
“I came back properly, and I can’t believe how it’s paid off,” Federer said.
His opponents, pundits, fans and many others couldn’t believe it, either, at least they didn’t at first. But they, along with del Potro, all believe now.