MIAMI, Fla. – Winning Indian Wells and Miami back to back, as Roger Federer did a year ago in his return from a six-month absence, was always going to be a challenging proposition to repeat.
But between that, and being out of the Miami Open in his first match, there’s a chasm few could have predicted would open up.
But Federer is out in the second round, defeated 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) by Australian qualifier Thanasi Kokkinakis.
In the process, Federer also lost the No. 1 spot in the rankings.
Rafael Nadal, who has played just one tournament this year because of injury but had fewer points to defend as the 2017 Miami finalist rather than champion, will take it back April 2.
Whether he can hold onto it, with all the points he must defend during the clay-court season, is to be determined.
“I deserve it after this match. That’s how I feel. Just so bad,” said Federer, who said he spent the entire match searching for solutions, and never really finding them. Still, he was just a few points away from making a great escape.
“I feel like I wasn’t feeling good. The ball, I wasn’t feeling. With my movement, things weren’t absolutely working. I felt like the third (set) could be a tricky one, of course. I feel like every time I had chances, something bad happened for me, wrong decision making by me, good decision making by him. Who knows what happened. It just felt like I could be paying the price for opportunities missed,” Federer said.
At No. 175, Kokkinakis is the lowest-ranked player to defeat a sitting No. 1 since Spanish lefty Francisco Clavet (No. 178) defeat Lleyton Hewitt at this same tournament 15 years ago.
Kokkinakis a promising teen
As a teenager, the 21-year-old was in the same conversation as other up-and-comers including his friend and countryman Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric. So for him, this was a breakthrough victory as he makes his way back after numerous injuries the last two years.
The biggest one was the shoulder surgery he had in Dec. 2015. He missed nine months. But it’s a surgery that many tennis players don’t fully come back from, especially on the serve. It was going to take more time than that to return to full strength again.
“At the start I was rushing a little bit. Obviously he puts a lot of pressure on you, doesn’t really play like many players. Obviously he’s a lot better than a lot of players. But game style-wise, he’s a lot different. Took a little bit of time to adjust,” Kokkinakis said. “Then when the game kind of slowed down to me, I started being able to execute and do what I needed to. I thought I was in control of more baseline rallies, for sure.”
Funnily enough, the numbers don’t really bear out their assessments. in the medium-range rallies (five to nine shots), Federer won 31-of-45.
Kokkinakis needed a wild card just to get into the qualifying here. He defeated No. 16 seed Thiago Monteiro of Brazil and No. 8 seed Taro Daniel (who defeated Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells) to make the main draw. In the first round of the main draw, he easily rolled past fellow qualifier Calvin Hemery.
This was other level, compared to those wins.
As with any upset where the rankings disparity is so great, it took some great play from the Aussie, and some poorer play from the No. 1 to even the playing field.
“I feel like it already started beginning of the second set, when I had break points first game, and he almost wanted to give me that game, and I couldn’t take it. … From that moment on, I played maybe a bad 10 minutes, which cost me the second set, maybe the match,” Federer said. “Look, it’s disappointing. Don’t know why I could never get to any level that I was happy with today. Sometimes you have these matches. Sometimes you find a way through. I just couldn’t get it done today.”
Kokkinakis felt the shifts in Federer tactics as he pushed back after the first set.
“He puts a lot of pressure on you with the way he plays. He shrinks the court, so it’s tough. When the game slowed down a little bit, I started controlling the points with my forehand. I think he felt it, too, that I was winning a lot of the baseline rallies. He started to come into net a lot,” Kokkinakis said. “The third set, I was holding on a lot of moments, tight moments, where he was in control of the third set. Played big when it mattered. I thought I played a really solid mental tiebreak, and, yeah, got it done.
“I said, If he beats me by hitting winners, too good. But he didn’t,” he added.
These are the types of matches an older player will tend to have more often as he ages. But Federer has had surprisingly few of them in the 15 months since he returned to action.
Dubai guest beats the master
And he lost to one of his young protégés, in a manner of speaking – one of the young up-and-comers he has invited to Dubai to train with him in the off-season.
(The most recent of those was 17-year-old Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime).
Those coveted invitations can, in some cases, be intimidating for the young prospects. In this case, Kokkinakis took everything he could from them and came out realizing that Federer was still only human.
“He’s been real supportive. Anything he thinks in my game, how it should operate, I’ve been all ears listening to him. To share the court, have such a big win on a big court against the world No. 1, it’s pretty crazy. Pretty happy about it,” Kokkinakis said. “Yeah, I mean, everyone is human. He just plays tennis a lot better than a lot of people.”
For Federer, a longer-than-expected break looms.
With the big red line struck through the clay-court season, he wouldn’t be expected to return until Stuttgart, the grass-court tuneup for Wimbledon that is played the week of June 11.
That’s more than two and a half months away.
“I’m a positive thinker. I feel like every match is an another opportunity. Especially after losing one, clearly I’m down right now. I’m disappointed. I’m frustrated a little bit that I couldn’t find a way. It’s unfortunate how it goes,” Federer said.
“Yeah, it’s pretty simple at the end of the day. You go back to the practice court or go on vacation, you really take a break, get away from it all. When you come back to the practice court to work, whatever it is, you do it at 100 per cent.”
Kokkinakis will play No. 31 seed Fernando Verdasco in the third round. He’ll be facing him, as he did Federer, for the first time.
He will be inside the top 150 with what he has done so far in Miami, inside the top 130 if he can beat the veteran Spanish lefty.
The entry deadline for the main draw at the French Open is in just over three weeks. Kokkinakis would need to win two more matches to be on the bubble to get straight in to a Grand Slam on his own ranking.
Since the last time that happened, at the 2015 US Open, he has either been absent or needed a wild card to play.