Numbers have a strange way of imparting significance to sporting events, and today the number 17 infused a stirring subplot into a Roger Federer victory that was—for lack of a better mode of description—extremely eventful. On this March 17, during his 17th Indian Wells campaign, Federer set a personal best of 17 straight wins to start a season. The scoreline—5-7, 6-4, 6-4—is not at all Federer-like; the 36-year-old had only dropped three sets all year prior to this match. That’s because Coric’s performance, by his usual standards, was not very Coric-like. As against his other opponents at this tournament, Coric took the match out of Federer’s hands for sizeable portions of it and nearly—just nearly—found the formula required to bring the unassailable Swiss back down to earth.
The first set was crowded with impeccable serving and quickfire baseline exchanges. Federer settled more comfortably and quickly into the match, winning the first ten points played on his serve. Coric looked shakier early on, partly because he came out hitting the ball a tad harder than he is accustomed to, which resulted in a good few errors. Once the Croat found his range—right around the sixth game, he began clubbing the ball with a level of depth and accuracy that was scarcely believable—missing seemed to become an impossibility for him. At 5-5, he earned a first chance to break Federer. The world No.1 foiled him with a 127mph service winner out wide. To this, Coric replied with an unplayable forehand pass on his next break point. In the twelfth game, Coric calmly closed out the set in spite of a dodgy call briefly interrupting his doing so.
As the second set got underway, the wind proved as tough an opponent for Federer as Coric. Federer immediately went down a break, his serve misfiring and his groundstrokes uncharacteristically wayward. Coric consolidated the break on his serve, and Federer halved the two-game deficit with a hold of his own. In the fourth game, Coric, hitherto unrequired to save a break point, gamely fought back from 0-40 to hold. After missing another opening a couple of games later, Federer broke back in the eighth game, held and then broke again to take the set. It really did happen that fast; Federer salvaged a match that was slipping away from him with a swiftness that only he knows how. It was enough for the consistency of Coric’s serve to drop off slightly, and Federer to be the aggressor without hitting too close to the lines, for the match to be turned on its head in the space of three games.
In another unforseen twist, Federer got off to a shocking start in the decider, dropping his serve to love as the wind picked up again. Coric didn’t fare any better and was broken back straight afterwards. The next four games went with serve, before the break-trading resumed in the seventh game. Not for the first time, Coric put himself 4-3 up and within two games of a Masters 1000 final; not for the first time, Federer yanked the 20-year-old away from the finsihing line when it was clearly in his sights. Once Federer levelled at 4-4 and held to force Coric to serve within a game of defeat, a feeling of inevitability crept in. Federer won 11 straight points to turn a critical juncture of the third set into a comfortable finish. Tomorrow, he will contest his eighth final at the BNP Paribas Open, and will be aiming for a record sixth title.
A version of this article was originally published with the title as “Federer Weathers Coric Storm For Indian Wells Final Place.”