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Steve Flink: Federer Ends Year on His Terms

11/29/2010 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Not since 1986 had the two best players in the world clashed in the final round of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, known then as The Masters. That year, the tournament was played at New York’s renowned Madison Square Garden, and a top of the line Ivan Lendl dissected Boris Becker 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 for the crown. Tennis fans eagerly anticipated a classic confrontation but did not get what they wanted in that championship match. Instead, they saw Lendl performing methodically from the back of the court, punching holes in Becker’s brilliantly explosive yet vulnerable ground game, backing up his own excellent first serve with a disciplined barrage of deep strokes off both sides. Lendl simply played too well, and the fans were left to appreciate a terrific performance rather than a great contest.

It was not a dissimilar scenario on the slow and low bouncing indoor hard courts of London yesterday. Roger Federer was at the crest of a late season peak, winning his third tournament of the five he played after the U.S. Open, securing his fifth year end title to earn a tie for the tournament record with Lendl and Pete Sampras. The 29-year-old Swiss was raring to go, full of verve and conviction, capping a nearly immaculate week by toppling Rafael Nadal for only the eighth time in 22 career duels. The two icons had met twice before in this tournament over the years, with Federer winning both of those battles rather easily. In this one, Federer had cause for consternation only briefly when Nadal struck back forcefully to take the second set. But, in the end, Federer won comfortably, preventing Nadal from securing the ATP World Tour Finals title for the first time as the Spaniard made it to his first final.

Federer stopped Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 in a match that featured some spectacular shot making sequences from both players. But clearly this was not one of their more compelling skirmishes.  From Federer’s standpoint, it was an impressive win at a crucial time, a match he needed decidedly more than Nadal, a time to assert himself in conditions that suited his game to the hilt. Federer’s timing off the ground had been awfully good all week, and he had not lost a set coming into the final. His desire to win this match was almost tangible. After losing to Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals when he had a pair of match points, Federer had gone back to work assiduously, and had been rewarded handsomely for his dedication. After Andy Murray crushed him 6-3, 6-2 in the final of Shanghai, Federer won Stockholm and Basel, squandered five match points against Gael Monfils in the semifinals at Paris on an exceedingly fast indoor court, and then reassembled his game decidedly to sweep through the field in London.

The circumstances in London were almost ideal for Federer, who never taxed himself in dismissing David Ferrer 6-1, 6-4, Murray 6-4, 6-2, Robin Soderling 7-6 (5), 6-3 and then Djokovic 6-1, 6-4 in the penultimate round on Saturday. He could not have asked for more; he stepped up for every match and did his job remarkably well, but only Soderling pushed him hard before bowing in straight sets. Nadal, already largely spent from a long and phenomenal year, had to recoup from a set and a break down to defeat Andy Roddick in his opening round robin match. He then raised his level of play markedly to account for Djokovic 7-5, 6-2 and Tomas Berdych 7-6 (3), 6-1. But a day before he took on Federer, Nadal was stretched to his physical and emotional limits before halting Murray in one of the greatest matches of 2010. The Spaniard won 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (6) in three hours and eleven minutes of pulsating tennis. Nadal managed to stop Murray at his very best, but surely that encounter took quite a bit out of him as he headed into the final. He was not totally physically wasted when he confronted Federer, but he did not find anything like his peak level of emotional intensity, and he was not moving with his usual alacrity. Federer, meanwhile, came out of the gates swinging freely and unmistakably relishing this chance to beat Nadal in a big match. What better way for him to end 2010 than to defeat his foremost rival in the final of the most prestigious event outside of the Grand Slam championships?

Nadal, of course, had celebrated a banner year in 2010, securing the last three Grand Slam titles of the season and becoming the first man since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to sweep the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open all in the same year. He finished off that task by taking his first U.S. Open title, and thereafter was never as highly charged or as fully motivated again. He did win his seventh and last tournament title of the season in Tokyo over Monfils, but he had losses to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Jurgen Melzer, and then pulled out of the Paris indoor event with tendinitis in his shoulder. The view here is that he needed time off to recharge his powerful private engines and had no desire to put himself through the rigors of competition in Paris. He wanted more than anything else to rest and set his sights on London.

His plan almost worked as he played his way into increasingly good form over the course of the week. But during the early stages against Federer, he did not look inspired or confident, while his opponent was brimming with all kinds of gusto and conviction. Federer sensed a crucial opportunity to impose himself and catch Nadal slightly off guard, and he was masterful in keeping the points short and denying Nadal much rhythm. This was his fifth tournament since the Open, and he had risked playing too much tennis down the stretch, which could have left him physically compromised in London, and might have led to a disappointing week. Yet he waltzed past everyone on his way to the meeting with Nadal, and seemed fresher and sharper than he had been for a long while.

The die was cast early in many ways. Federer held at love in the opening game of the match, cracking two outright winners, serving one ace. Nadal retaliated with a love game of his own, but Federer was going all out for his second serve returns. Nadal missed three of four first serves in that game, and Federer made four unforced errors, three on his returns. But he was determined to try out some options he has not often explored enough against Nadal in the past. Federer held easily at 15 for 2-1 and Nadal matched that, allowing Federer only one point as the Spaniard got safely to 2-2.

Both men were settling into the match, but Federer’s comfort level was much higher because he seemed to be playing largely on his own terms. He was serving-and-volleying selectively behind first and second serves--- not often, but frequently enough to keep Nadal off balance. His kicker to Nadal’s backhand in the Ad Court was effective when he chose to go in behind it. More importantly, his slice serve wide in the Deuce Court was pulling Nadal way off the court and giving the Spaniard no play on his backhand returns at full stretch. Moreover, Federer was ripping his topspin backhand at sharp angles crosscourt and pulling a sluggish Nadal (who did not get the depth he needed with his forehand) off the court with that shot. In turn, Federer had his inside-out forehand working remarkably well.

The Swiss held at love for 3-2, serving an ace for 40-0, then serving-and-volleying on the next point, coaxing Nadal into a backhand return error. Normally Nadal will create some opportunities to break Federer early in a match, but not so in this case. Nadal still managed to hold at 15 for 3-3 with five straight first serves, as Federer struggled with his backhand return. At 3-3, Nadal went to work. He nailed an acutely angled backhand crosscourt for a clean winner without an apparent opening, and that seemed to unsettle Federer for an instant. Federer double faulted to trail 0-30. But Federer attacked his way out of that corner commandingly, winning four straight points to reach 4-3, releasing two service winners with the wide Deuce Court serve, angling away two elegant backhand volleys for winners.

At 3-4, Nadal rolled to 30-0, but double faulted tamely into the net. The Spaniard still advanced to 40-30, but missed a routine inside-out forehand wide, an error he rarely makes, and a mistake that cost him dearly here. At deuce, Federer caught Nadal off balance with a forehand down the line winner, and then unleashed a scintillating topspin backhand crosscourt winner for the break. Suddenly, Federer was up 5-3, and he closed out an excellent serving set by holding at love, connecting with three out of four first serves, sealing the set with a vintage forehand inside-out for his 14th winner. Federer had finished off that set with a flourish, and the Swiss had won 20 of 23 points on serve. Nadal was somewhat shaken, but soon regrouped.

The world No. 1 commenced the second set with an easy hold at love. Federer lost a bit of his edge and Nadal finally got an opening when his adversary served at 1-2. In that pendulum swinging fourth game, Federer missed five of six first serves, and Nadal took his second serve returns early and went after them aggressively. With Federer down 30-40 in that game, Nadal sent out a viciously high topspin forehand return. Federer moved around his backhand for the inside-out forehand, but lost control of that shot, hitting it wide. Nadal had the break for 3-1, and consolidated it in the next game with the benefit of a forehand net cord winner at 40-30. Yet Federer was back in command on his delivery, not granting Nadal a point in his next two service games. Nadal stuck to his recipe of swinging his serve wide to Federer’s backhand, and dropped only two points in his next two service games.

The Spaniard held at 15 to take the second set 6-3, and a tight third set seemed entirely possible. Nadal had Federer down 0-15 in the opening game of that final set, but uncharacteristically rolled a backhand wide down the line. Federer got that important hold easily, then served another love game for 2-1, and suddenly it all unraveled for Nadal with alarming swiftness.  The Spaniard led 40-15 in the fourth game but Federer attacked after a second serve return, and then was the beneficiary of two glaring unforced errors from Nadal. At break point, Federer approached down the line off the forehand and Nadal was rushed into a forehand down the line passing shot error.

Just like that, with Nadal taking his foot off the accelerator, Federer had some welcome breathing room. He was ahead 3-1, 40-30, but Nadal managed to get his topspin return up high and Federer drove a forehand long. This game was vital for both players. At deuce, Federer served wide to the backhand, and Nadal chipped a backhand return down the line. The ball hung on the net cord, but fell back on Nadal’s side. Federer promptly served an ace out wide for 4-1. Nadal was still down only one break at 1-4, but for one of the few times that I can remember, he essentially gave up. On the opening point of the sixth game, he hit a backhand pass wildly out of court. Federer followed with a sharply angled backhand crosscourt return winner, but Nadal did not make much of an effort to chase it down. Nadal recovered to 15-30 but then allowed Federer to take control of the next rally. It was 15-40, and apparently Nadal had lost all hope. He meekly netted a slice backhand down the line. Federer was up 5-1, and knew he was going to win. He held at 15 to wrap up a gratifying victory. Federer has not won this tournament five times without good reason; he is the best indoor player of his era, and in turn Nadal has never been confident when playing under a roof. His problems against Federer were compounded by the low bouncing court. Without Nadal’s topspin forehand crosscourt hopping higher, Federer was able to neutralize that shot for the most part. Federer’s topspin backhand was as sharp at it has been for a very long time. Moreover, Federer was unstoppable against Nadal on serve, winning 37 of 40 first serve points (93%) and a respectable 58% of his second serve points.

In sharp contrast to the 2009 ATP World Tour Finals, when 10 of 15 matches went the full three sets, the 2010 event featured straight set matches almost across the board. The tennis was high caliber but not all that enticing—until Nadal and Murray set the tournament ablaze. Their semifinal was a magnificent piece of business. Murray had played an abysmal match against Federer in the round robin, impatiently going for winners without opening up the court, serving inefficiently (his first serve percentage was 44%), returning with no authority or consistency whatsoever. Federer was on target with only 55% of his first serves but he won 88% of those points and 75% of his second serve points. Murray—returning poorly by his standards—never reached break point in the match. Federer was unyielding, wily and sensible, seldom going for the lines, playing outstanding defense, allowing Murray to beat himself.

But Murray recovered well and obliterated David Ferrer 6-2, 6-2 to qualify for the semifinals. He deliberately downplayed his chances against Nadal, but proceeded to play some of his most sublime tennis of the entire 2010 campaign. The first set of this showdown was magnificent in every way. Murray served with astounding precision and consistency, releasing nine aces. He constantly had Nadal guessing, and his speed and accuracy was uncanny. Nadal, meanwhile, was serving very well himself. Neither player faced a break point and the ball striking was superb on both sides of the net. Nadal was overwhelming at times off the forehand, sending Murray scampering all over the court, pounding the ball from one corner to the other ruthlessly and unerringly. But Murray defended spectacularly, kept his wits about him, and went on the attack in rallies whenever possible.

In the first set tie-break, Nadal built a commanding 5-2 lead with a barrage of forehands, but Murray took his next two service points and then got to 5-5 after out dueling Nadal in a 36 stroke exchange. At the end of that stirring rally, Nadal went with a backhand down the line drop shot but Murray moved forward beautifully and chipped his backhand down the line, low and deep. Nadal tried to pass him down the line but Murray read it perfectly and volleyed into the open court. It was 5-5, but Nadal was still serving. His first serve was well placed to the forehand and he took Murray’s short return and drilled a forehand deep to his opponent’s backhand. On the dead run, Murray netted a two-hander under extreme duress. Murray served at 5-6, but missed his first serve and Nadal managed to find his way forward to make a winning forehand drop volley. Set to Nadal, 7-5 in the tie-break. Murray had missed five straight first serves after opening that sequence with an ace.

Early in the second, Nadal nearly broke the match wide open. Murray was serving at 0-1, 15-40, and seemed fatigued and out of sorts. But he saved himself with an excellent second serve that Nadal could not handle on the forehand, followed by an ace. Murray held on gamely for 1-1. By the middle of the set, Nadal was the more fatigued player, mentally if not physically. Nadal kept holding serve to lead 3-2, but then Murray rocked the Spaniard back with a burst of inspiration. At 3-3, Nadal rallied from 0-40 to deuce, but left a forehand too short. Murray provoked an error with a scorching forehand crosscourt, and then the British No. 1 blasted a flat two-hander crosscourt for a startling winner. He had achieved the first service break of the match in sparkling fashion. Nadal seemed quietly downcast. Murray served his 15th ace to hold at 15 for 5-3 and then broke Nadal easily again. With Nadal down 15-30, Murray struck a clean winning backhand return, and then took the next point with a forehand winner up the line to make it one set all.

At the beginning of the third set, Nadal was in immediate jeopardy. At 0-1, he fell behind 0-30 but managed to hold on at a critical moment. Murray then had 40-15 in the third game and later had a third game point, but a perspicacious Nadal got the break. At deuce, Murray inexplicably tried a forehand drop shot that never even reached the net, and on the next point his serve-and-volley attempt did not work. Nadal was poised for a backhand return down Murray‘s forehand sideline, and Murray had no play. Nadal held on from there to reach 3-1. At 3-2, Nadal held on from 15-40, winning a fierce 14 stroke rally, hitting two unstoppable serves, then closing out that game with a 129 MPH ace down the T. Nadal held easily again for 5-3 and had a match point on Murray’s serve in the ninth game.

Murray missed his first serve, but Nadal overanxiously sent a backhand return long. Later in that game, Nadal got back to deuce by winning the most spectacular point of the match. Murray drove a two-handed pass brilliantly down the line, but Nadal displayed touch and execution of the highest order, making a winning backhand half volley winner into an open court. The fans exploded in admiration. Murray somehow held on for 4-5, but Nadal still had the chance to serve the match out in the tenth game. He came from 0-30 back to 30-30, two points away from a triumph, but drove an inside-in forehand wide, a shot he was making with ease all through the first set. At 30-40, Nadal made a reasonably good forehand crosscourt approach, but Murray was unperturbed, cracking a two-handed pass up the line for the break back to 5-5. The battle of wills was astonishing at this stage. Murray went to 40-15 in the eleventh game but Nadal still earned a break point, which Murray erased with a 137 MPH ace out wide. Murray held on with another ace, his 21st of the match. Nadal answered by holding at 15 for 6-6.

Fittingly, it would all end in a sweepingly unpredictable tie-break. Murray opened with his 22nd and last ace of the match, and then Nadal could not win either of his service points. Murray hammered a two-hander crosscourt that was too hot for Nadal to handle, and then a deep return from the underdog set up a scintillating forehand crosscourt winner. Murray had stormed to 3-0, moving ahead by two mini-breaks. But Nadal did not lose faith. He stepped around for an inside-out forehand that provoked a forehand error from Murray to make it 3-1, but Murray composed himself, rolling a forehand winner into the clear off a short return.

Nadal was serving at 1-4, and was in unenviable territory—but not for long. Two terrific first serves from Nadal—both to Murray’s backhand—were too much for his adversary, who could not make the returns. Now serving at 4-3, Murray could not contain Nadal, who cracked an inside-out forehand to set up a clutch forehand winner. It was 4-4, then 5-5. Nadal got his first serve in and then moved around for yet another telling inside-out forehand. Murray got it back into play with a weak forehand slice, but Nadal rolled another forehand behind Murray, who slipped as he tried to change direction. Nadal was at match point for the second time, ahead 6-5 in the tie-break. Murray was serving, and he seized the initiative, coming forward to force a backhand passing shot error from Nadal. At 6-6, Murray pulled Nadal wide in the deuce court with his first serve, but narrowly and unluckily missed an inside-out forehand to the open court. Serving at 7-6 with a third match point, Nadal prevailed at last, winning a 19 stroke rally with an inside-out forehand winner measured to perfection. Nadal was victorious 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (6). It was probably the match of the year in tennis, lasting three hours and eleven debilitating minutes.

Federer needed only one hour and 20 minutes to dispose of Djokovic 6-1, 6-4. Federer was as disciplined and determined as he had been all week, but Djokovic was all too typically self destructive. He double faulted at break point down to fall behind 2-0 in the first set, and never recovered. Djokovic managed to forge a 3-0 second set lead after Federer squandered a 40-15 lead in the second game, but the Serbian dropped six of the last seven games. Most infuriating of all to his legion of supporters, Djokovic was his own worst enemy on important points. A case in point: at 3-1, 30-30, he was well positioned for a routine forehand volley but he punched it long and went on to lose his serve. To be sure, Federer was first rate and strategically full of acumen, but now in three appointments against Federer since the U.S. Open, Djokovic has won only one set. That is less than he should expect from himself.

In any event, the most intriguing match of the week other than the dandy between Murray and Nadal was Andy Roddick against Nadal. Considering how badly his year was disrupted by bad health and injuries, Roddick did very well to qualify. He made Nadal very uncomfortable at the outset. After serving his way thunderously out of a 15-40 bind in the opening game of the match, Roddick applied unexpected pressure on Nadal. Running around his backhand for forehand returns off second serves, the 28-year-old American helped to provoke two double faults from the Spaniard, and Roddick was off and running at 2-0.

He won the first set and broke Nadal for a 2-1 second set lead. But Roddick served a double fault at 2-1,30-30 and then Nadal made a solid return off a 140 MPH first serve and he took that point to make it back to 2-2. That set went to a tie-break, with Roddick serving at 3-2. He served-and-volleyed unsuccessfully to allow Nadal back to 3-3, and then tried the same tactic. Nadal was ready, rolling a two-handed return crosscourt for an outright winner. He served an ace for 5-3, and took that tie-break 7-5. At 2-2 in the third, Roddick put in four out of five first serves, but got broken as Nadal countered again when Roddick served-and-volleyed at break point down. Nadal chased down a half volley drop shot from the American and passed him cleanly crosscourt off the backhand. On went Nadal to victory, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4. Roddick may have outsmarted himself in some ways, allowing Nadal to easily anticipate his plan of attack.

Roddick did not win a match all week, falling in straight sets against Tomas Berdych and Djokovic. It was a rough week for him after an exhilarating start against Nadal. Berdych played well against Roddick and in a 7-6 (3), 6-1 loss to Nadal. Soderling was crushed by a top notch Murray in his opening match, then beat Ferrer in straight sets, and gave Federer a run for his money in his last round robin assignment. Soderling played well, but it was his third loss in a row to Federer since his breakthrough triumph over the Swiss in the quarterfinals of the French Open. He did not take a set in any of those encounters.

Federer exacted a lot of revenge over the second half of 2010. He beat his Miami and Wimbledon conqueror Berdych in a blockbuster of a match in Toronto. He had that string of wins over Soderling and Djokovic. After losing to Murray in two hard court finals at Toronto and Shanghai, Federer had that emphatic straight set victory over his British rival in London. And, of course, he evened his record for the year with Nadal at 1-1 by virtue of his final round win on Sunday. Nadal had won seven of eight finals in 2010, while Federer had stood at 4-4 in that department. More importantly, Federer had won four tournaments in 2010 prior to London but only one of them (Cincinnati) was a Masters 1000 event, and he had did not reach the final in three consecutive Grand Slam events after his Australian Open triumph, something that last happened to him in 2002-2003.

To be sure, Federer ended 2010 on positive terms, playing as he wanted to play, lifting his game to a far more convincing level that anything he had shown us since winning the Australian Open in January. He will head into 2011 with a full head of steam, believing in himself and his chances, no longer surrounded by as many skeptics. But the fact remains that Nadal owned 2010, towering above Federer and everyone else. He lost a lot of emotional energy after the U.S. Open, which was understandable. And yet, even after winning three Grand Slam events across the year, after capturing more tournaments (seven) than anyone else, after pulling completely away from the pack, he still came within one set of winning his first Barclays ATP World Tour Finals title, and he has every reason to be proud of that.

Nadal and Federer did not play each other in a Grand Slam event across 2010 after five years in a row of meeting at the majors. That is bound to change in 2011, which is good news for all of us. But the view here is that if Nadal and Federer do face each other at the Australian Open—as many of us expect they will—the man from Spain will rise to the challenge and topple the Swiss for his tenth career Grand Slam championship.

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