It was over. Wasn't it? Borna Coric thought so.
The 21-year-old Croatian was playing superbly, pressuring Roger Federer's backhand and putting the world's No. 1 player down a set and a break in the second set of their semifinal Saturday morning at the BNP Paribas Open. No one else in this tournament had taken a set from Federer, but his usual finesse was absent. Supportive chants from the sellout crowd turned to cries of anxiety and desperation, willing him to turn things around.
Coric was forceful and strong, hitting deep and returning almost everything Federer launched at him. When Coric fended off a break point to take a 4-2 lead in the second set, Federer seemed down and on his way out.
"I thought that's it. That's pretty much it," said Coric, who ranks 49th in the world and was unseeded here. "I thought he was going to drop."
Any other player might have begun mentally packing for the next tour stop. Not Federer, no matter that he's 36 and had to break his routine to eat his usual prematch pasta at 9:15 a.m. because of the unaccustomed 11 a.m. start.
"It was just a fighting match," he said. "It didn't come easy, so I had to go get it."
He began by winning the last four games of the second set, a streak that included his first break, for 4-4. Although he went down a break twice in the third set he stuck around and began to prey on Coric's inexperience. Coric had two chances to go up 5-3 but squandered them and lost the game on a double fault, the opening Federer sought. He won the next game on a beautiful drop shot and broke Coric in the next game to complete a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory and advance to Sunday's final against Juan Martin del Potro, who waltzed past Milos Raonic 6-2, 6-3.
Federer holds an 18-6 career edge over his Argentine opponent but their encounters are rarely routine. Their most memorable matchup was the 2009 U.S. Open final, which included two tiebreaks that Del Potro won as he wore Federer down in the fifth set and won his only Grand Slam event. It's one of the few matches Federer has said he'd like to get a do-over.
"We both know what the other is trying to do and we try to stop the other person from doing it," Federer said. "But it's hard when me or him is in full flight. It's basically an arm wrestle the whole time, and I think we enjoy that."
Federer said he was lucky to beat Coric on Saturday, and that was true. But he also was resolute when he had to be. Coric, who lost only nine games in his first three matches here and won three-set matches against Taylor Fritz in the fourth round and No. 7 seed Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals, went after his shots and stuck to his tactics. He pushed Federer to the limit. But Federer did the same to him and was just that much better when it mattered.
"He basically said to me, 'OK, you need to win the match. I'm not going to give the match to you,' " Coric said. "Many other players, especially because I was playing very good and I was not missing, many other players would just give the match away, and he didn't do it. He pushed it. I mean, of course, he won also because he's Roger Federer and because he plays great."
To compete for his sixth title here, Federer had to be fiery and combative Saturday. He welcomed the chance to show a side of his personality that isn't often on display.
"I should have lost the match," Federer said after he established a career-best start to the year of 17-0.
"I enjoy these fighting matches, because very often I can't talk enough about my quality of my grit and my fighting spirit. But when it happens I actually enjoy the battle, because it's what it's supposed to be, to be quite honest."
Del Potro, the No. 6 seed here, didn't get much resistance from Raonic.
"It was surprising to see him serving not too hard, and I broke his serve very quick in both sets. That give me the control of the match," said Del Potro, who has finally put behind him the devastating wrist injuries that nearly led him to retire.
Before the tournament began, Del Potro said he hoped to play Federer in the final. He got his wish, for better or for worse.
"We play great matches together. I love to play against him," Del Potro said. "He's the favorite to win [Sunday] but I will try to do my best tennis. I beat him in the past and I know how can I do to repeat that, but is not easy."
It never is easy to beat Federer, no matter how dire Federer's predicament seems. Just ask Coric.