MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Roger Federer won his 101st career singles title at the Miami Open on Sunday. The kind of performance the Swiss champion put on makes you wonder if it wouldn't be more accurate to say he started working on his second hundred titles here this week.
There were few signs that Federer would secure this title -- and a number that indicated he might not -- when he began his quest 10 days ago. No player had managed to win more than one title through 19 ATP tournaments this year. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic, the top seed in Miami, had won the past three Grand Slam events, and he seemed keen to rebound from an unexpected third-round loss at Indian Wells.
Federer himself had serious doubts. He had been upset in Miami in the second round last year (after having a first-round bye) and was fresh off a loss in the Indian Wells final to then-No. 8 Dominic Thiem. "It would have been easy to say, 'Last year just didn't work out, let me not come back,'" Federer, who was seeded No. 4 in Miami, said in his news conference Sunday after he crushed No. 7 seed and defending champ John Isner 6-1, 6-4 in the final. "I'm glad I changed my mind."
Other ominous signs developed for Federer in real time. He was obliged to mount an 11th-hour rally to take out his first opponent, Radu Albot. All eyes then turned to the fleet of talented 21-and-under players who ran roughshod through the draw (two of them teenagers who ended up in the semifinals). Federer's role seemed to change from primary contender to elder statesman, dangerous veteran to role model.
The 37-year-old didn't help his cause with the gracious way he fielded all those questions about the gifted, young, promoting kids who wanted nothing more than to replace him in the brackets. But that's the Federer MO: Love -- and lull -- 'em to death.
"I was, like, 'Wow, it's unbelievable. How old is he? How good is he gonna get?'" Federer said, recalling the first time he saw Denis Shapovalov, his semifinal opponent, smack a backhand. "He was very impressive. Same with the serve. He has that beautiful swinger going. You know, it just felt like he belonged there."
Federer added that he was "very excited" about playing Shapovalov, whom he went on to demolish without mercy or remorse, 6-2, 6-4.
Federer's assignments have always read like "Mission: Impossible" scripts. Take down "King of Clay" Rafael Nadal on red dirt in Europe. Outmaneuver elastic man Novak Djokovic on the spongy lawns of Wimbledon. Outfox sneaky Andy Murray on the hardcourts of Asia. The task this week was one more suited for a lumberjack than the well-coiffed Swiss icon: chop down the tall timber in three successive matches interrupted by the semifinal. His opponents included 6-foot-6 Daniil Medvedev (fourth round), 6-8 Kevin Anderson (quarterfinals) and 6-10 Isner -- all men who serve thunder.
The first two of those matches provided outstanding preparation for Federer's final-round meeting with Isner, who had won 10 consecutive sets (nine of them with tiebreakers) and dropped serve just four times in the tournament entering the final. And yet, Federer broke Isner in the opening game of the match.
"I didn't serve a particularly great game," Isner said afterward. "And he made me pay for it."
Federer kept making Isner pay. And pay. And pay some more. In this case, the stats do tell the true story. Isner didn't win a single return point against Federer's first serve, and won just three points against Federer second serves. That's in the entire match. Federer, meanwhile, created 10 break points, which is as many as Isner might reasonably expect to face in an entire tournament.
Every aspect of Federer's game was clicking, particularly his serve return -- the key shot for any Isner opponent. This was their first meeting in nearly three years (Federer leads the series 5-2), and there was some question how well Federer's 37-year-old eyes and reflexes would react to those unique Isner fastballs.
Federer ended up returning serve as well if not better than any man in recent memory. It was thanks to his mastery of the finesse shots, including the chip and simple, blocked return. As Isner said, "He just does it a little bit differently [than others]. He just kind of blocks it back. Whereas Novak, when he's locked in, he just kind of rips it back, doesn't block it too much. Roger was standing in close, as well, just reacting very well and very fast to my serve. I mean, he's something else."
Those gentle returns of warp-speed serves have all but vanished from the games of younger players. But they were instrumental in Federer's development. "It definitely helped being able to play against the serve-and-volley generation more than big servers, per se," Federer said of the era dominated by Pete Sampras, the time when Federer made his breakthrough. "They would make you feel the pain, you know, in some shape or form, either by coming in to your weakness time and time again, or by variation. So I think it comes from there."
The only caveat that might keep this match from entering the lore and legend of the game was the compromised state of Isner's left foot, which became a visible issue after the seventh game of the second set and forced a quick conclusion to the match. Isner said he began to feel pain on the top of his foot in the first set, and it gradually got worse.
"It's a terrible feeling, because you're on an island out there and, you know, you have no teammates to hide behind," Isner said. "And you're going up against the greatest player ever. You know, [I'm] playing in this incredible atmosphere, and my foot's killing me."
As well as Federer was playing, the men were on serve through seven games of the second set -- meaning Isner might still have forced a tiebreaker. But by then, the pain was bad enough for Isner to summon the trainer and take a painkiller. The pain was so severe that he appeared to finish the match more out of respect for Federer than any thought of winning.
"I knew at 3-4, whatever, I knew I wasn't going to win," Isner said. "I can tell you that much. Which is a weird feeling, you know, being on serve in the finals of a match and knowing that I wasn't going to win."
Summarizing his month in the U.S. -- with a finals appearance at Indian Wells and a title in Miami -- Federer said he feels like he's in a "good phase." He feels "super healthy" and is thrilled that he's been able to play (or practice) every day for the past month. "That's something that maybe hasn't always been the case these last few years," he said. "So you appreciate these moments."
Federer will take a brief vacation now, then get ready for the Euroclay season that he chose to skip the past two years. "What this win does for me, it just takes even more pressure off from the clay-court seasons," he said. "And I wanted to play the clay in, not a relaxed fashion, but [thinking], 'Let's just go and do it, and prepare well.'"
Winning in Miami, he implied, was a key part of that preparation.
Some may question Federer's decision to return to the clay, where Nadal always looms. But when you start working on your second hundred titles, there's no time to waste.