During his charge to the Australian Open title in January, when he would capture his historic 20th major title, Roger Federer, whose graceful game often conjures comparisons to everyone from Baryshnikov to Rembrandt, was asked if he considered himself an artist.
“I don’t know, is sport art?” Federer wondered aloud. “Possibly.”
The racquet, it would seem, is indeed transformed to a paintbrush in the Baselonian’s hand. We’ve seen his masterworks time and again this past week and a half in Indian Wells, where the five-time champion and all-time Slam king has played with the kind of vintage vigor we were first introduced to in the early 2000s.
He didn’t drop a set in reaching the semis for the 11th time in 17 career appearances. Flicking a crosscourt backhand winner in his final-four turnaround against Borna Coric, he brought the Stadium 1 horde to its collective feet, the stroke no longer merely a high-level weapon but perhaps the most effective, versatile one-hander in the game. (Yes, that includes Stan Wawrinka’s and Dominic Thiem’s.) It was the kind of shot that the late author David Foster Wallace would call “intricate clinical artistry.”
While Federer wasn’t at his creative best in that wind-strewn semi against Coric, when push came to shove in the third set he found a way to paint the lines, roaring back from a set and a break down to triumph 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.
Federer will call upon those brushstrokes once again as he shoots for a record sixth BNP Paribas Open title on Sunday, facing the surgically repaired Juan Martin Del Potro, a runner-up here in 2013. He boasts an overwhelming 18-6 mark against the Argentine in career head-to-heads, but he has lost some big matches to the 29-year-old, including a five-set US Open final in 2009 and consecutive finals in his hometown of Basel (2012-13). He’s well aware that the big man can serve you off the court, and dictate play with what has to be considered the most potent forehand in tennis.
“We’ve had a lot of close matches,” said Federer, who at 36 is off to the best start of his career at an untarnished 17-0. “Big matches, close matches…I think we have an interesting matchup. We both know what the other is trying to do, and we try to stop the other person from doing it. But it’s hard when me or him is in full flight. It’s basically an arm wrestle the whole time.”
“Yeah, we’ve played great matches together,” Del Potro concurred. “I love to play against him. He’s the favorite to win tomorrow, but I will try to bring my best tennis. I’ve beaten him in the past and I know how I can repeat that, but it’s not easy. It will be a good challenge to see how my level is against him. I think everybody was expecting this final, and I will try to enjoy the atmosphere on court.”
After landing in a difficult quarter of the draw, things opened up for Del Potro when an unsteady Novak Djokovic fell to all-but-unknown qualifier Taro Daniel of Japan; acrobatic Frenchman Gael Monfils retired with yet another injury; and No. 2 seed Marin Cilic was sent packing by 34-year-old German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber.
But Delpo still had to deliver, as he did in the quarterfinals when he rallied from a set down against the upset-minded Kohlschreiber. Like Federer, he’s enjoying a nice run himself. His semifinal dismissal of Milos Raonic marked his 400th career victory, and his 10th straight since walking off with the trophy in Acapulco. He’ll go for win No. 401 on Sunday, trying for the first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title of his career.