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Steve Flink: How Many More Milestones For Federer?

11/28/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

He has made so much history, set so many substantial records, stretched his talent longer and farther than he could ever have imagined. He has taken some hard blows over the last couple of years, suffered through some distressing slumps, and at times has seemed defensive and off balance in answering his growing cast of skeptics. And yet, Roger Federer’s drive remains undiminished, his quest for achievement on the highest level is still unmistakably large, his need to keep adding to his shining legacy ever apparent. At 30, this champion reemerged at the end of a long and fundamentally disappointing year to close his campaign in extraordinary style.

Appearing in his 100th career singles final at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, Federer claimed a 70th tournament triumph with a hard fought 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-3 victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. With that victory, Federer ended his 2011 season on a remarkable roll, garnering a third tournament win in a row, putting together a 17 match winning streak, hitting another milestone in the process. He captured the season ending event—arguably the fifth most important tournament in the sport—for the sixth time, setting himself apart once more with that accomplishment. Federer had shared the record for tournament wins at the World Tour Finals with Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl, but now stands alone at the top of the historical ladder as the only six time victor at a tournament that is awfully difficult to win.

For the third Sunday in a row, Federer found himself confronting the steadily improving Tsonga. They had met in the final of the Masters 1000 event in Paris with Federer prevailing in straight sets. They had collided again on the same court in London seven days earlier, when Federer had carved out a 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 round robin victory. And now they were at it again, facing each other for the eighth time in 2011. It is rare for two leading players to meet each other so frequently in one season. This was, after all, Federer’s 16th tournament of 2011. Tsonga had won only two of the previous seven clashes with Federer, but his spectacular comeback from two sets to love down against the Swiss in the Wimbledon quarterfinals marked the first time in 179 career matches at the majors that Federer had not closed out a match from that commanding position.

Tsonga had taken the first set in only one of his 2011 duels with Federer, almost always complicating his task by having to play from behind. But this time around, he came out of the gates much more powerfully and purposefully, well aware of how dangerous it is to allow Federer into the front runner’s seat. At the outset, the Frenchman was striking the ball mightily, serving better than Federer, and the tennis on both sides of the net was electrifying. Despite connecting with only one of six first serves in the opening game, Federer—his kick second serve bounding high and deep—still managed to hold at 30 in the opening game. Tsonga retaliated with an easy hold of his own, allowing Federer only one point. In the third game, Tsonga, steeping up the velocity of his shots, had Federer at 15-30. Federer was fortunate at that moment as his forehand drop volley clipped the net cord and fell over. Rather than being double break point down, Federer was back to 30-30. Tsonga pushed him to deuce, but Federer unleashed two unstoppable first serves to hold on. Tsonga held at love for 2-2, pushed Federer to 30-30 again in the fifth game, but Federer responded by taking the next two points, winning the latter with an ace to move ahead 3-2. Once again, Tsonga held at love for 3-3. He clearly was outplaying Federer, but the Swiss remained deeply concentrated and professional, tending to his knitting despite Tsonga’s imposing physical presence.

In the sixth game, Federer was locked at 30-30 again. Tsonga went for a daring backhand return inside in, missing it narrowly. Federer held at 30 to take a 4-3 lead. Now Federer’s experience and match playing prowess clearly emerged. Tsonga was serving with new balls, seemingly giving him an advantage. But Federer was sharp and opportunistic. Tsonga served-and-volleyed on the first point behind a second serve, and the Swiss was ready for it. He kept his return low to set up a backhand passing shot winner up the line. Another sparkling topspin backhand down the line that was unanswerable got Federer to 0-30. For the first time, Tsonga was in jeopardy on serve. He did not respond well. The Frenchman had Federer off the court but failed to put away an easy volley. Federer chased down the volley and made a passing shot winner for 0-40. Tsonga then dumped a routine forehand drop volley into the net. He had lost his serve at love. His hard work and fine play had gone for naught. Federer was twice pushed to deuce by a persistent Tsonga in the next game, but he held for the set, weathering the storm nicely.

The complexion of the match had changed significantly, as had Tsonga’s demeanor. No longer as robust, Tsonga drifted into early trouble during the early part of the second set. At 1-1, he served consecutive double faults to trail 0-30, and he drifted to 15-40. An ace wide in the deuce court made it 30-40, and another untouchable delivery at 134 MPH lifted Tsonga back to deuce. He held on gamely for 2-1, but his swagger at that stage was gone. Federer broke Tsonga for a 3-2 lead, exploiting his magnificent forehand to the hilt. At 30-30, a forehand inside-in from the Swiss had too much sizzle for Tsonga to handle, and then at break point Federer ran around his backhand for a forehand inside-in winner, his best and most spectacular return of the match.

Federer seemed certain now to run out the match comfortably. He held at 15 for 4-2, and then had a break point for 5-2. Tsonga had been picking the wrong times to go for drop volleys and drop shots, but at this crucial moment he took advantage of a short chip return from Federer and made a backhand drop shot winner from close range. Tsonga held on, but Federer was moving his serve around persuasively, keeping Tsonga off guard. He held at 15 for 5-3. In four second set service games, he had won 16 of 20 points. Federer had held every time at 15. Tsonga had not pressed the Swiss anything like the way he had in the opening set.

Federer served for the match at 5-4. A service break for Tsonga was inconceivable. But Federer missed three first serves in a row on his way to trailing 0-40, as a fearless Tsonga laced a forehand down the line, winning return followed by two aggressively played points. Federer made it back to 30-40, but Tsonga struck a big return down the line, approached behind an inside-out forehand, and put away a high volley with gusto. He had broken back for 5-5, astounding the audience and probably himself with his clutch play. But the Frenchman suddenly lost all rhythm on serve in the eleventh game, missing nine of ten first serves. Yet Tsonga saved a break point and held before Federer steadied himself to make it 6-6.

In the tie-break, Federer built a 5-2 lead with a trademark forehand swing volley winner. The Swiss then ran around his backhand for a scorching forehand inside-in, and Tsonga was hard pressed to keep his forehand in play as he dealt with all of that pace and depth from his opponent. Somehow, Tsonga flicked the ball back in play, and Federer drove a forehand long. A service winner lifted Tsonga to 4-5, but Federer could have ended the contest with two winning points on serve. Tsonga seized the initiative, though, cracking a backhand down the line to set up a big forehand crosscourt. Federer netted a running forehand under extreme pressure. Tsonga had made it to 5-5.

Federer then aced the Frenchman down the T to earn a match point. At 5-6, Tsonga missed his first serve, but took control of the rally and won that point with a crushing forehand inside-in winner. At 6-6, he sent out a thundering 137 MPH service winner. From match point down, Tsonga had moved briskly to set point up. Federer missed his first serve, and Tsonga launched himself into a blazing inside-out forehand return. Federer tried in vain to flick it back off the backhand. It was one set all.

In the early stages of the third set, Federer was having problems making first serves, missing nine of his first eleven. But his kicking second serve was still giving Tsonga fits. At 2-2, however, Tsonga had a small opening with Federer serving at 15-30. Federer had just double faulted, but Tsonga missed a running forehand down the line that seemed within his range. Federer aced him down the T and closed out that game with another effective second serve. Tsonga struggled through a deuce game to make it 3-3. A final set tie-break seemed entirely possible. But Federer held at love with an ace out wide for 4-3, and Tsonga was feeling an extra layer of pressure. In the eighth game, he fell behind 0-30, but took the next three points. At 40-30, his 135 MPH first serve was blocked back by Federer, who was regularly reading the Frenchman’s delivery and could thus fend off some serious heat from his athletic adversary. Tsonga missed a routine inside-out forehand for deuce, and then his forehand approach clipped the net cord and landed wide. Break point for Federer. Tsonga served-and-volleyed his way out of that one, but Federer quickly took himself to break point for the second time.

Tsonga was battling furiously. He made it to deuce with an angled forehand drop volley winner, but then Federer earned a third break point. Federer challenged the Frenchman with an inside-in forehand, and Tsonga released an errant running forehand. Tsonga’s comeback was over. Federer was right where he wanted to be, serving for the match a second time. With swift assurance, Federer held at love to close out a stirring account, releasing a service winner, an ace, and a couple of forehand volley winners. In the end, his strategic acumen separated him from Tsonga, who served too predictably and too often to the backhand, and could not match Federer’s discipline and poise under pressure. The better match player prevailed.

Federer had defied history to a degree. On 14 occasions since the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals—formerly known as The Masters—was inaugurated in 1970, the final round pitted players who had already clashed in the round robin. In eight of those cases, the losing competitor in the round robin had gained revenge in the final. There is logic to that pattern. In the upper levels of the game, it is no mean feat to stop another leading rival twice in the same week. Federer himself had beaten David Nalbandian in the round robin back in 2005, only to lose to the Argentine in the final round. But on two other occasions—in 2003 and 2004—he had toppled Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt both in the round robin and the championship match. Now he had managed to hold back Tsonga twice in one week, and that was remarkable.

Both Federer and Tsonga captured their semifinal contests with relative ease, although the Swiss was not convincing in raising his record to 12-0 against the tenacious David Ferrer. Federer was having problems off the backhand, particularly when Ferrer elevated his topspin to make the 30-year-old play difficult shoulder high balls. Moreover, Federer struggled with his timing off the forehand, making some surprising mistakes off that side, sporadically losing his range and driving shots over the baseline.  Indoors against the Spaniard, conditions for Federer can be entirely favorable when he is close to the top of his game.

This time around, he was in reasonably good form, but far from his zenith. In the end, the accuracy of his first serve and a kicking second serve that was functioning remarkably well kept Federer out of serious trouble. He never lost his delivery in the entire match. And yet, he was apprehensive for a while at the end of the first set. Serving at 4-5, he had to fight his way through five deuces before holding on. Ferrer had his best return game of the match. In that taxing game, Federer connected with only 8 of 16 first serves. Ferrer knew this might be his lone chance to break his renowned adversary. Ferrer was two points away from sealing the set six times, but his overzealousness when it counted hurt him irreparably. On those six critical points, the Spaniard committed four unprovoked mistakes. Soon, his chance was gone. Federer never looked back.

The Swiss closed the first set out on a run of three consecutive games, then swiftly advanced to 2-0 in the second set. For all practical purposes, the match was over. Federer marched on to a 7-5, 6-3 triumph, sprinkling the court with 24 winners while Ferrer had only 8. Moreover, Federer’s selective net approaches were very telling; he won 15 of 17 points when he came forward. Ferrer acquitted himself well from the backcourt and exploited Federer’s less than stellar play off the ground, but he had no answer for Federer’s outstanding serving.

In the other semifinal, Tsonga accounted for Tomas Berdych with his most sustained high level tennis of the tournament. Tsonga was victorious 6-3, 7-5 over his big hitting opponent, losing his serve only once in two sets, and outperforming his rival from the baseline with admirable regularity. Backhand to backhand, Berdych was the better man. But Tsonga was far superior off the forehand, continuously forcing Berdych onto the defensive with the pace and brilliance of his shots. Tsonga’s inside-out forehand was magnificent. On top of that, he mixed up his serve beautifully, keeping Berdych off balance with the varying speed and placement of his delivery. Tsonga was first rate across the board, while Berdych never settled into any kind of rhythm.

The fifth and sixth games of the opening set were pivotal. Tsonga was down 15-40 at 2-2, but he saved two break points there with a service winner and an unanswerable forehand crosscourt. Tsonga held on gamely for 3-2 and then broke Berdych in the following game with some adroit defense luring Berdych into an anxious error. By virtue of playing the bigger points with more authority, Tsonga had seized control of the battle. In his next two service games, Tsonga did not lose a point. He had the set, 6-3. He had the momentum. He was moving inexorably toward victory.

At 3-3 in the second set, Tsonga broke at 15 as a besieged Berdych double faulted at 15-40. Two more holds, and Tsonga would find himself in the final. But he had his only lapse in the eighth game. The dynamic Frenchman missed five of six first serves, double faulted once, and an opportunistic Berdych broke back for 4-4. The big Czech soon held for 5-4. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Tsonga was in a bind, serving to stay in the set. He fell behind 0-15, three points away from a one set all deadlock. But here Tsonga displayed his finest qualities. An ace at 114 MPH down the T took him back to 15-15. Another ace at 136 MPH lifted the Frenchman to 30-15. He held at 30 for 5-5, restoring his confidence, halting Berdych’s brief burst of momentum. In the following game, Berdych missed five of eight first serves, and Tsonga pounced, gaining the break for 6-5. Serving for the match in the twelfth game, Tsonga held confidently at 15, releasing two aces, underlining his supremacy. The No. 6 seed had joined No. 4 seed Federer in the final.

Meanwhile, the top three seeds—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray—had all failed to make it out of the round robin portion of the tournament. The first to depart was Murray, a sad development for the British fans who had every reason to believe that this might be his year to claim the year end crown. Murray had, after all, captured three of his previous four tournaments heading into London, and his form since the U.S. Open had been awfully impressive. But the British No. 1 injured his groin in practice, and performed ineffectually during a 6-4, 7-5 loss in his opening round robin match against a sharp and resourceful Ferrer. Murray moved without his usual alacrity, lacked the sting on his shots to dictate points the way he nearly always does against the Spaniard on hard courts, and seemed way out of sorts.

To be sure, despite his predicament, Murray had a few chances. He was up a break at 2-1 in the first set but that brief advantage evaporated rapidly. He was serving at 4-3 in the second set with a game point for 5-3, but lost that crucial point with an unforced error off the forehand. Murray was clearly hampered by his injury, and announced his withdrawal from the tournament the following day. He would have faced Berdych and Djokovic, but the 24-year-old wisely decided that exacerbating the injury was unacceptable. He had a 710 point lead over Federer in the race for No. 3 in the world coming into the tournament, but his withdrawal and Federer’s run enabled the Swiss to recover his status as the third ranked player.

Djokovic had opened his campaign with a gritty display against Berdych, who outplayed the Serbian for much of the match yet still fell narrowly short. Berdych was setting the tempo in the rallies all across this contest, generating more pace off both sides, getting much better depth, keeping Djokovic largely at bay. The big Czech raced to a 4-0 first set lead and held off a comeback from Djokovic to move out in front. Djokovic got an early break in the second set, made it count, and grinded his way back to one set all. But Berdych still seemed to have the upper hand as he kept Djokovic on defense. Berdych played a brilliantly to break Djokovic for a 4-2 final set lead, losing only one point in that game, releasing three outright winners along with a fortunate forehand that clipped the net cord and fell over.

With that flourish, the 26-year-old seemed ready to close out the account. But he lost his nerve, throwing in two double faults in the following game, losing his serve at 15. Djokovic had a new lease on life, holding easily for 4-4. Yet Berdych regained his conviction swiftly. He held at love for 5-4, held again without losing a point for 6-5, and then garnered a match point with Djokovic serving in the twelfth game. The two competitors became embroiled in a 12 stroke exchange. Djokovic stood his ground admirably when Berdych unleashed some scorching shots. Berdych eventually lost the point with an ill-conceived forehand down the line winner attempt that did not clear the net. Djokovic held on and then took the match in a final set tie-break, winning that sequence 7-3 as Berdych committed five unprovoked mistakes. An obstinate Djokovic prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3).

Berdych, of course, would recover from that distressing loss. In his next match, he upended Janko Tipsarevic, who replaced Murray in Group A. Berdych was down match point in a final set tie-break, and the Serbian seemed to have victory in his grasp. He approached on the Berdych backhand, catching his opponent leaning the wrong way. Berdych had no time to drive his passing shot, simply chipping his backhand instead. Tipsarevic went for a sidespin backhand down the line volley into an open space, but unluckily missed it wide. Perhaps flummoxed by that missed opportunity, Tipsarevic foolishly went for a big second serve, and double faulted. Berdych came through to get the win by taking the next point, coming through 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (6). Following up on that triumph, Berdych qualified for the semifinals with a remarkable escape against Ferrer.

Ferrer was out dueling Berdych from the baseline meticulously, taking the first set, moving to 4-3, 40-15 in the second. But the Spaniard wasted his opening. Berdych captured ten of eleven games from there to fashion a 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 victory. Berdych took his game to another level down the stretch, and Ferrer’s play deteriorated flagrantly. Berdych took 20 of 24 points on his way to 5-0 in the final set as Ferrer’s suspect serve deserted him; the Spaniard double faulted at break point down in both the second and fourth games. He had already qualified for the semifinals, but realized that a loss to Berdych would bring about a semifinal appointment with Federer rather than a meeting with Tsonga. To be sure, Ferrer did not want to play Federer. But Berdych was under more duress than his adversary. He had to topple Ferrer just to reach the semifinals, and his comeback under those circumstances from so far back was commendable.

Let’s turn our attention back to Djokovic. He had seemingly paved the way for an eventual place in the semifinals by overcoming Berdych from match point down. But he played an absolutely abysmal match against Ferrer, falling 6-3, 6-1. Djokovic seemed largely lifeless, making 33 unforced errors, seldom dictating the points, allowing his opponent to comfortably control the outcome. In his last match, Djokovic collided with Tipsarevic. The world No. 1 easily secured the opening set, dropping only four points in five service games, breaking Tipsarevic once, asserting his authority from the baseline with both pace and precision. Until the middle of the second set, Djokovic looked confident off the ground, calm and upbeat in his manner.

But slowly the favorite lost emotional energy. He fell behind 2-4 in the second set, broke back immediately, and was serving at 3-4, 30-0. A straight set victory for Djokovic seemed entirely possible. But he lost that critical game uncharacteristically. From deuce, he double faulted and then made an unforced error off the forehand. Tipsarevic—who had lost all three of his previous skirmishes with Djokovic—rallied to make it one set all. Tipsarevic established a 2-0 lead in the third set, and never looked back. Djokovic had no sense of urgency whatsoever. Tipsarevic gained the victory 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. Improbably and inexplicably, a man who had lost only four matches all year was beaten for the second time in one week, and had failed to reach the semifinals. His disappointing play could not spoil a magnificent season as Djokovic captured ten of the fifteen tournaments he played, winning 70 of 76 matches (but capturing only six of his last ten contests), sweeping three of the four Grand Slam championships. But it was saddening to watch him finish such a phenomenal season so dismally.

The same could essentially be said for world No. 2 Nadal. He approached the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in the wrong frame of mind. He had skipped the Masters 1000 event in Paris after a jarring loss to Florian Mayer at Shanghai. Nadal had retreated to the practice courts, hoping to hone his skills for the upcoming Davis Cup Final against Argentina, looking to build the foundation for a bright beginning to 2012. But in every comment he made, Nadal seemed to be expecting very little of himself in London. He has never enjoyed playing indoors, winning only one title across his scintillating career. Although the Spaniard made it to the final in London a year ago before losing a three set final to Federer, dealing with the fast, low bouncing indoor hard court conditions has often been an exercise in futility for the left-hander.

The fact remains that Nadal is normally an indefatigable competitor, a player who prides himself on a propensity to meet the tallest challenges, a man who has grown accustomed to forcing his will relentlessly upon opponents. But he was never right in London. In his opening Group B match against Mardy Fish, Nadal took the first set easily, winning it 6-2. But Fish struck back to take the second. Nadal moved to 2-0 in the final set but left the court for a bathroom break. Fish managed to collect the next three games before Nadal broke back for 3-3. Nadal was not moving well. He was not getting on top of the rallies. He wore a pessimistic expression. Nadal would twice make it to match point with Fish serving at 4-5 in the third set, but Fish served-and-volleyed his way out of that corner. The American took the Spaniard into a tie-break, but a fortunate Nadal emerged with a 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (3) win as Fish’s ground game came apart at the seams. Fish would lose also in straight sets to Tsonga and in a three set match with Federer, but he had much to be proud of in qualifying for the World Tour Finals for the first time.

Nadal next took on Federer, knowing full well what he was up against. The Swiss had bested the Spaniard all three times they had met indoors over the course of their careers. Although Nadal held a commanding 17-8 lead in their head to head series overall, he was crushed on this occasion. Earlier in the year at the Masters 1000 event in Miami, Federer had suffered a humiliating 6-3, 6-2 semifinal loss at the hands of Nadal. Perhaps Federer had payback on his mind in London. From the outset, he was primed. His footwork was exemplary, his serve unstoppable, his forehand humming. Moreover, Nadal could not get the hop on his topspin forehand that is so bothersome to Federer on other surfaces in different settings. Federer was striking his topspin backhand impeccably. Nadal had nowhere to go, no way to hurt Federer, no plan that could disrupt the flowing rhythm of Federer. Even the Spaniard’s inside out forehand was not bothering Federer, who countered that tactic time and again flawlessly.

From 2-2 in the opening set, Federer soared to victory, winning ten of the last eleven games, sweeping to a 6-3, 6-0 win in barely over an hour. A seemingly despondent Nadal won only nine points in the second set. It was the most emphatic beating he has ever taken from the Swiss, who performed prodigiously. Federer unleashed 28 winners while Nadal had only 4. The Swiss made only eight unforced errors, one more than Nadal. Federer took 86% of his first serve points and 67% of his second serve points, while Nadal was under 50% in both categories. What happened? Quite simply, Federer was in the zone, playing his finest tennis of 2011, and Nadal was at his worst on a surface that takes the heart out of his game. Undoubtedly, Federer had Miami on his mind.

Despite that rousing setback, Nadal still had a chance to reach the semis. He faced Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his last round robin match, and took a 6-2 lead over the Frenchman in their career series onto the court. In this clash, Nadal played decidedly better than he had against Federer, but he was still outclassed by the diversity and sparkle of his opponent’s play. The first set was on serve all the way, although Tsonga always seemed to have the edge. In the tie-break, despite a double fault that made the score 2-2, Tsonga swept five points in a row to grab the set. Tsonga had Nadal ill at ease with his attacking tactics. The Frenchman served-and-volleyed virtually whenever he wanted, approached at all the right times in the rallies, and read Nadal’s crosscourt passing shots beautifully. The Frenchman put on a drop volley clinic. He was simply too good.

But Nadal willed his way through the second set. As Tsonga became uptight and started pressing off the forehand, Nadal was unerring. The Spaniard won the second set 6-4. Tsonga made good on only 41% of his first serves in the second set. Nadal had his bearings. But Tsonga found another gear in the final set. He went ahead two breaks at 5-2 in the third, lost his serve carelessly with three double faults, but regrouped promptly to break Nadal at love. Victory went to the Frenchman 7-6 (2), 4-6, 6-3. He had knocked Nadal out of the tournament, and deservedly so. Tsonga had played imaginative, inspired, crackling all court tennis. But Nadal in many ways resembled Djokovic in London. He was empty emotionally. There was no sense of urgency. He could find no spark.

It was a week of intrigue, an uplifting time for some, a downcast stretch for others. For Andy Murray, it was the worst case scenario to be forced out of the tournament with a season ending injury. For Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the mental barriers were daunting and considerable, and they could not do themselves justice. But for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, despite losing the championship match to Federer, it was a largely buoyant time. He was a much better player in 2011 than ever before, a fiercer competitor. As for Roger Federer, he came to London in search of history, and found it. Think about it: of his 70 tournament victories, 16 have been at the Grand Slam championships, 18 have been recorded at Masters 1000 events, and now he has a record six Barclays ATP World Tour Finals tournament victories. To win 40 tournaments of such stature is something only an unassailably high stakes performer like Roger Federer could possibly accomplish.