Wednesday, March 13, 2019 - Roger Federer plays Kyle Edmund in the 4th round of the BNP Paribas Open in Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Jared Wickerham/BNP Paribas Open)
There has always been plenty of ways to describe the way Roger Federer plays the sport of tennis.
From metaphors of artistry to robust allegorical references, the Swiss “Maestro” recalls many of culture’s finest luxuries in his tennis. For over 20 years on the professional circuit, Federer has flirted with tennis fans’ sensibilities with fluttering forehands and footwork around the court, reminiscent of a ballet dancer on a stage.
Well, if Federer dances ballet, then Dominic Thiem’s genre of dance would be more akin to… hip hop.
Not only is the 25-year-old Austrian younger, but his footwork dances on court with far more ferocity and his body bends and contorts with the sort dynamism for a human being to hit a tennis ball that hard with. After his quarterfinal win over Hubert Hurkacz, Federer referred to the racquet as an extension of his arm – for Thiem, it’s an extension of his whole body, the being of which is thrust into each serve, forehand and backhand.
Yet both ballet and hip hop require, like any form of dance does, skills of precision and under-appreciated athleticism. Federer and Thiem might go about it in different ways and elicit separate movement-based metaphors, but physically they’re two of the game’s upper echelon of movers.
And in Sunday’s BNP Paribas Open men’s singles final, their Venn diagram of styles will come to a head for one of the top prizes in the game.
Federer advanced to the final courtesy of a dominant run of matches in which he was never pushed farther than five games lost in a single set. In his semifinal against Rafael Nadal, he actually lost zero – but only because the match wasn’t played. Nadal was forced to withdraw from their eagerly anticipated 39th career clash due to familiar knee pain, giving the Swiss a free pass into his ninth final in the southern California desert.
Theim was also the beneficiary of a walkover in his journey to the final when Gael Monfils had to pull out of their night session blockbuster quarterfinal, suffering from Achilles pain. Nevertheless, he put together an impressive string of victories in the early rounds, followed by steely display of nerves in a two-and-a-half hour semifinal against Canada’s Milos Raonic on Saturday.
The Federer-Thiem head-to-head is locked at an even 2-2. Both of the 20-time Grand Slam champion’s wins came on hard courts, including their most recent matchup at the Nitto ATP Finals last season, while the Austrian’s two wins came on natural surfaces, clay and grass.
Playing for not just the trophy, but also a rare lead in a head-to-head with a tennis legend, Thiem will have to hit all his marks if he’s to interrupt Federer’s choreographic movement across the net. If he can get the former world No. 1 on his back foot and out of rhythm with his heavy kick serves and popping forehand drives, then there might be a chance for the No. 7 seed.
If not, then it will be Federer dancing his way to a sixth BNP Paribas Open trophy.