By Jane Voigt
March 17, 2018 — The desert winds picked up as the match wore on. They seemed to pull Roger Federer, drawing him toward deeper belief and greater risk. He needed the inspiration because Borna Coric was on his way to the biggest win of his life, of the tournament and of the season.
“I needed to fight a little bit,” Federer said on court, immediately after his defeat of Coric 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. “And I had to try to do not much shot making in the wind … I got a little bit lucky.”
This was Federer’s 11th semifinal at the BNP Paribas Open and Coric’s first-ever Masters 1000 semifinal. Federer had not lost a set in the tournament, is the tournament leader in total match wins (61) and has won the title five times. None of that matter, according to Borna Coric.
For the first set and a half he took charge. He couldn’t do anything wrong and the horizon looked bright for the No. 49 ranked player. He battered Federer’s backhand, as if using the Rafael Nadal playbook: just keep plugging away, the shot’s his weakest, it will fall apart. The strategy worked. Federer’s backhand was a mess. Deep into the second set he had only 2 winners off that wing.
“One of the worst backhand matches for Federer,” Chris Fowler said, calling the match for ESPN. “Two winners only.”
“He’s got Roger Federer on the ropes,” Patrick McEnroe pointed out, also on set for ESPN.
Federer’s normally steady serve failed him, as well. At one point in the first set it was below 40% while Coric’s approached 80%. Federer was slow, too, getting caught flat-footed as speedy forehand- and backhand-winners whizzed by. Points clicked up and up for the 21-year-old Croatian. The inevitable rumor arose … there’s something wrong with Federer’s back.
“He’s [Coric] in the zone right now. He can’t miss,” McEnroe said. “He’s taken him out of his comfort zone.”
Federer never looked comfortable, even as he raised his hands in victory breaking Coric at love to advance to tomorrow’s final. He had won the last 11 points, finally dialing in enough and tempering his tactics enough to squeak out the win.
“It was always a bit of a cat and mouse game,” Federer said on court, still looking a bit dumbfounded that he’d actually won. Later he would tell the press, “I should have lost the match.”
“How does this guy do it at 36, just finding ways,” McEnroe asked in awe of what he’d just watched.
“When you’re confident and have experience there’s really no reason to panic,” Federer told the press, which was aired on ESPN. “It was a close match. Things could’ve shifted for us. Margins are slim and Borna played a great match.”
Down a set and a break, the crowds stunned into silence, Federer managed to control points. They slowly accumulated in his column as he hit cross-court slice backhands with Coric, as if in a practice session. On queue Coric went for winners and missed. Even when Coric went up a break in the third, Federer maintained a calm determination … kept the kid hitting, hoping and believing he’d miss or continue to go for too much.
“Sometimes you’re happy with making just a little,” Federer admitted.
Borna Coric will leave the Coachella Valley with momentum and memories of a great tournament. He deserves them. He fought hard. He believed and it paid off. On Monday, his ranking will rise to a projected No. 30. If he does well in Miami and keeps his ranking up during the clay-court swing, he could be seeded at Roland Garros. That’s a big payoff for such a young man whose determination and commitment to tennis is quite obvious.
Federer’s season rolls on now at 17-0, the best start to any season he’s ever had since turning pro in 1999. He awaits the winner of the second semifinal today between two big hitters and servers: Juan Martin del Potro and Milos Raonic. The final will be Roger’s 147th of his career. Who would Federer rather face?
“Nice to hear Milos is playing well again in a Masters,” Federer said. “Hopefully they’ll play for three hours.”