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Because he is a singularly elegant player who moves more gracefully than perhaps any other great champion in the history of tennis, Roger Federer has often seemed indestructible. He has celebrated a phenomenal career with very few injuries, appearing in the last 60 Grand Slam tournaments, enjoying a run of uninterrupted excellence that no other man has matched. We have always marveled at how well his body has held up over the years, no matter how many tough battles he has fought, regardless of the rigors that are central to big time tennis competition. He turned pro back in 1998, and has played no fewer than 1,221 matches across his sterling career, amassing a staggering record of 995 wins against only 226 losses for a winning percentage of .814.

But as versatile an athlete as he has always been, as much care as he has taken to prevent getting hurt, as smooth and effortless as he makes it all look, Federer remains a human being subject to the same concerns and anxieties as anyone else who plays a sport for a living. Federer has never walked off the court and retired during a match, but he has been forced to withdraw three times from tournaments. The first two instances were against James Blake indoors at Paris back in 2008 before their quarterfinal, and versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the start of the 2012 season in Doha prior to their semifinal meeting. But never before had he been forced to forfeit a match of such importance as his scheduled final round appointment with Novak Djokovic at the Barclays ATP World Tour Championships on Sunday.

Federer graciously walked on court to address the fans in London’s 02 Arena and informed them that he was not fit to face Djokovic in a highly anticipated final round clash between the two top ranked players in the world of tennis. As was the case when he defaulted to Blake and Tsonga in the past, Federer did so because of a back injury. He had felt something in that region at the very end of his semifinal victory over Stan Wawrinka the evening before during the third set tie-break, but had hoped treatment and medicine on the morning leading up to his clash with Djokovic would permit him to compete.

That was not the case. For Federer, the timing of this injury was abysmal. Not only did he want to confront Djokovic and win a seventh crown at the World Tour Championships, but he has his heart set on joining forces with Wawrinka in leading Switzerland to an historic first Davis Cup triumph for their nation. They take on France in the Cup Final this coming weekend, and there must be at least some gloom among the Swiss contingent as they await the outcome of Federer’s fate. Can he possibly be ready to compete in best of five set competition on clay as early as Friday, and if he does play will he even resemble the essential Federer?

Meanwhile, for fans in London, it was a shame that Federer was unable to perform. Never before in the history of this prestigious tournament that started in 1970—formerly known as The Masters—had a player defaulted a final, although there were two cases where it easily could have happened. In 1972 at Barcelona, the Americans Stan Smith and Tom Gorman met in the semifinals. Gorman reached match point in the fourth set, but realized his back was in bad shape. He knew he would be in no condition to play the final. Gorman told the umpire he could not continue, and sportingly shook Smith’s hand. Smith lost to Ilie Nastase in a five set title round match. One year later, at Boston in 1973, the Australian John Newcombe advanced to match point against Tom Okker in the semifinals but tore a calf muscle going up for an overhead, landing painfully and awkwardly. He was as magnanimous as Gorman had been the previous year, walking up to the net and conceding the match to Okker. The Dutchman put up a good fight before losing a four set final to Nastase.

Federer, of course, did not know anything was wrong with his back until the latter stages of his semifinal against Wawrinka, who had four match points in the final set. Federer clearly hoped with a good night’s sleep and some help from the trainers the next morning, he would be ready for the final. But his condition did not sufficiently improve. He wisely elected not to play in the final of a tournament many regard as the fifth most important in the men’s game.

Thus Djokovic collected his seventh singles title of the 2014 season two days after sealing the year end No. 1 spot on the Emirates Airline ATP Rankings for the third time in the last four years. Djokovic also claimed his third consecutive crown at the Barclays ATP World Tour Championships, establishing himself as the first man since Ivan Lendl (1985-87) to realize that feat. He has secured 31 straight match victories indoors and would have been hard to beat, but there is no more formidable indoor player in the modern era than the redoubtable Federer, so the public lost a chance to witness what could have been a monumental battle. On the other hand, even if Federer had not injured his back, he would have been compromised by his long showdown with Wawrinka, and he could well have been obliterated by Djokovic on a slow indoor court that was more favorable to the Serbian.

Federer has been lauded in many circles for his capacity to listen to his body, arrange his schedule accordingly and not push himself beyond his limits. But perhaps this autumn he overdid it. Having taken a holiday after the semifinals of Davis Cup the weekend after the U.S. Open, he returned to win Shanghai in October, had a week off, and then won Basel. He probably made a mistake by playing in Paris the next week, losing there in the quarterfinals to Milos Raonic. Across 2014, he played too much tennis, winning 72 of 83 matches. The strain of that much debilitating competition ultimately caught up with the Swiss.

At 33, he must approach the future with some caution because his back problems have been recurrent. Since 2008, it has always been problematic. He made mention in both 2009 and 2010 of back issues, and there were some signs in 2011 of more troubles. He had to leave the court briefly during a fourth round meeting with Xavier Malisse at Wimbledon in 2012 because the back was acting up, but managed to get through that match and went on to win the tournament. He had off and on difficulties with the back all through 2013.

Be that at it may, even before the elite eight man singles event met such misfortune with the Federer plot twist, the tennis had been strangely devoid of sparkle during round robin play. No fewer than ten of the twelve matches had been settled in straight sets. Both Federer and Djokovic marched through their respective groups. In Group A, Djokovic commenced his activities with a 6-1, 6-1 rout of U.S Open champion Marin Cilic. Next, the Serbian accounted for Australian Open titlist Wawrinka 6-3, 6-0, capturing 12 of the last 13 games from 0-2 down in the opening set. Djokovic next raised his career record against Tomas Berdych to 17-2 with a comprehensive 6-2, 6-2 triumph over the 29-year-old from the Czech Republic, thus sealing the No. 1 ranking. He performed immaculately off the ground and served with absolute precision and bite in all three contests, storming into the semifinals at the cost of only nine games in his six sets—an unprecedented achievement.

Federer was pushed only slightly more than Djokovic. In Group B, he opened by avenging a loss to Milos Raonic indoors at Paris nine days earlier, striking down the big Canadian 6-1, 7-6 (0), sweeping ten points in a row to close out that account after Raonic reached set point at 5-6 in the second set. Federer followed with a 6-3, 6-2 win over U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori, and completed his round robin duties with a startling dissection of an out of sorts Andy Murray. Never before in 631 career matches on the ATP World Tour had Murray lost a 6-0, 6-0 match, and yet it nearly happened here. He trailed 0-6, 0-5, 0-30 but avoided a triple match point predicament by sending a passing shot directly at the Swiss, who missed a forehand volley. Murray held on to gain a measure of self-respect, but the fact remained that he had been utterly humiliated in that 6-0, 6-1 debacle; with the victory, Federer moved ahead of the two-time Grand Slam tournament winner 12-11 in their head to head series.

In any case, the six days of round robin competition were far too predictable and the fans seldom witnessed the top of the line tennis that has so often been showcased at this tournament over the years. But those who attended the Saturday semifinal sessions were rewarded with two enticing confrontations that provided suspense, fluctuating fortunes, high quality rallies, and an air of the unexpected. In the opening semifinal duel, Djokovic took on Nishikori, who finished 2-1 in Group A to claim his place in the penultimate round. After manufacturing a major upset over Djokovic in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, Nishikori had been thoroughly upended by the Serbian in the semifinals at Paris two weeks before London.

This time around, Djokovic was unstoppable at the outset, earning free points on serve almost at will, controlling the climate of the match from the backcourt, returning serve with his customary alacrity and supreme anticipation. There were no holes in his game. Nishikori had no way to make an impression. The Serbian seized control early. At 1-1, he held at love with a pair of aces, opening and closing that game with untouchable deliveries. When Nishikori punched a backhand volley wide at break point down in the fourth game to give Djokovic a 3-1 lead, the set was essentially over. Djokovic broke again for 5-1 and wrapped up that chapter swiftly 6-1, winning 27 of 38 points. On serve, Djokovic was outstanding, taking 16 of 18 points, connecting with 78% of his first serves.

So dominant was Djokovic on his delivery that he won 86% of his first serve points and 100% on his second serve. Nishikori did not win a single point on his second serve. Djokovic promptly broke Nishikori in the first game of the second set, but right then and there the complexion of the match changed. At break point down in the second game, Djokovic double faulted.

The audience was delighted that Nishikori was making a move, but Djokovic was disconcerted by what he perceived as mistreatment from the fans. He stopped dictating play and Nishikori thoroughly found his range, beating Djokovic to the punch off both sides. From 3-3 in that second set, the appealing Japanese shotmaker found remarkable rhythm. His shots were much more penetrating. His serve was bigger and better. Nishikori was now controlling the center of the court, keeping Djokovic at bay, taking matters into his own hands.

Nishikori captured three games in a row from 3-3, taking 12 of 17 points in the process. He was flowing so freely that he seemed fully capable of winning the match. Djokovic had to reassert himself in a hurry before Nishikori pulled away permanently.

The first game of the final set was pivotal. Djokovic found himself down 15-40 after missing three of four first serves. He missed another first delivery on the next point but stood his ground until Nishikori overanxiously drove a forehand down the line into the net. At 30-40, Nishikori’s second serve return was struck forcefully down the middle, about a foot from the baseline. Somehow Djokovic maintained his court positioning and fended off that shot magnificently, sending his two-hander back with great depth crosscourt. Nishikori would lose that point on an errant backhand down the line.

A revitalized Djokovic swung a service winner out wide to the forehand of Nishikori, eliciting an errant return. The Serbian seized the initiative in the next rally, taking a short ball from his opponent and driving a forehand crosscourt for an outright winner. Djokovic held steadfastly from 15-40, collecting four clutch points in a row to move ahead 1-0.

The favorite never looked back, and Nishikori’s serve deteriorated. A double fault in the second game put the Japanese icon down 15-30. He reached 30-30 with a sparkling forehand winner, but lost the next two points with unprovoked errors. Djokovic had the break for 2-0 and held at 30 for 3-0 with a service winner out wide in the ad court. Serving in the fourth game, Nishikori double faulted for 30-30, served an ace for 40-30, but then double faulted again.

Djokovic took the next two points for the insurance break, and held at love for 5-0, releasing three unreturnable serves. Serving at 0-5, 30-40, Nishikori sadly double faulted once more to conclude the contest. Djokovic had prevailed 6-1, 3-6, 6-0. Nishikori won just 18% of his second serve points in the match. Clearly, his serve had cost him any chance to succeed in that match. But he had amply demonstrated how rhythmically spectacular he can be off the ground. He will be a serious contender at all of the majors next year.

Meanwhile, Federer and his Davis Cup teammate Wawrinka took over the 02 Arena in London that semifinal evening, and the two Swiss competitors put on the most entertaining show of the week. Only twice in sixteen previous appointments with Federer had Wawrinka been the victor, but this year he toppled the 17 time major champion in a come from behind three set final at the Masters 1000 event in Monte Carlo, and took the first set in their Wimbledon quarterfinal before falling in four sets. He no longer looks at Federer with excessive reverence; these days, Wawrinka believes he can hold his own with his countryman any time they step on a court.

Wawrinka approached this meeting in the best possible frame of mind. He was determined to be the aggressor, to keep Federer off balance and ill at ease, to set the tactical agenda. Wawrinka realized his only path past Federer would be to outmuscle his adversary from the baseline, to overpower him especially off his backhand flank, and to minimize Federer’s supreme artistry as much as possible. Wawrinka came out firing from the outset, going for his shots boldly, challenging Federer off both sides with unrelenting pace. The Swiss No. 2 came at the world No. 2 ferociously in the third game. At 30-30, he released a scorching forehand winner down the line, and he broke at 30 with a pattern that was often repeated in this stirring battle.

Federer was too conservative from the baseline, even off his forehand side. He kept slicing backhands in that rally, but Wawrinka pounded away aggressively, winning that point with a penetrating crosscourt forehand that was too much for Federer to handle. Wawrinka was off and running. He held at 30 for 3-1 with a 135 MPH ace down the T, and then served another terrific game to hold at 15 for 4-2, producing an ace and a pair of service winners. Federer recognized his plight, and in the seventh game back to back aces lifted him to 30-15. But Wawrinka reached 30-40 with some big hitting, and then roared to 5-2 with a dazzling forehand return winner off a second serve.

Wawrinka was up two breaks, but he backed off when serving for the set in the eighth game, double faulting to trail 15-40 and then erring tamely off the forehand. Federer had one break back, and then held at 15 for 4-5. But Wawrinka lost only one point in closing out the set on serve in the tenth game, taking it 6-4 with a routine hold, using the body serve effectively twice to stifle his adversary.

The second set was hard fought all the way, remaining on serve until the twelfth game. Wawrinka was serving at 5-6, striving for a tie-break. He was broken at love, making three unforced errors. It was one set all. But Wawrinka immediately broke in the opening game of the final set. On the first point, umpire Cedric Mourier overruled on a sideline call against Federer, although the replay confirmed that the linesman’s call had been correct and Wawrinka’s backhand passing shot had been wide. Mourier did not make it clear to Federer that he had overruled, but he announced the “Love Fifteen” score clearly and loudly. Why Federer did not query that decision once he heard the score called is inexplicable. Not until Wawrinka struck a forehand passing shot winner did Federer realize what had happened. He was down 0-40, not 15-30. He explained to Mourier that he would have challenged the overrule on the first point if he had realized what the umpire had done. Federer saved one break point but was broken on the second.

Wawrinka had a reprieve, and he ran with it. The 29-year-old consolidated the break and kept holding. He moved to 4-2 and had Federer down 0-30 in the seventh game, but did not give himself enough margin for error on a topspin backhand crosscourt, catching the net tape with that shot. Federer held on sternly and had two break points to make it back to 4-4. Wawrinka made good on only 2 of 12 first serves in that game, but held on for 5-3 with the benefit of some good fortune. On his first break point, Federer just missed a crosscourt forehand winner attempt; on the second, Wawrinka nervously took too big a swing at a forehand volley from close range, but his shot fell in for an improbable winner.

At 5-4, Wawrinka served for the victory. At 30-15, he had an opening for an inside-in forehand but played it too fine and drove it wide. But he advanced to 40-30 and had three match points. He served-and-volleyed on all three, which was questionable strategy. On two of the three match points, he was attacking behind second serves. Why not stay back and work his way in off a potential short ball? But just as harmful for Wawrinka was his execution when he attacked. On the first match point, he did not go for a sufficient angle on his forehand first volley, allowing Federer to easily glide across the court to flick a forehand passing shot down the line into a wide open court. The second match point was Wawrinka’s best opportunity. He was in a position to make an aggressive backhand first volley, but dumped that shot into the net. Finally, on the third match point, he got in trouble again as the return came back at his feet, and Federer eventually won that point with another forehand down the line passing shot.

Wawrinka had lost his nerve; it was as simple as that. He rushed forward time after time on the match points because he wanted to get it all over with. His anxiety was evident to one and all, especially the opportunistic Federer, who broke for 5-5 when Wawrinka awkwardly chipped a backhand approach into the net. Federer then held from 15-40 as Wawrinka missed a routine forehand return off a second serve at 30-40. Wawrinka rallied from 15-30 for 6-6, and on they went to a decisive tie-break. Federer was serving at 5-3 in that sequence when Wawrinka made one last surge. A crackling topspin backhand crosscourt from Wawrinka drew an error from Federer. Wawrinka unloaded on a crosscourt forehand to coax an error from Federer to make it 5-5, and the Swiss No. 2 took a third point in a row when Federer netted a chipped backhand return.

Federer was serving at 5-6. Wawrinka was at match point for the fourth time. Federer sent a mediocre first serve down the T, going with the percentages to the Wawrinka weaker forehand wing. Wawrinka blocked the return down the middle, but it travelled long. Federer now came in for a forehand drop volley winner, and he repeated that play on the final point. He somehow prevailed 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (6) in two hours and 48 minutes for his third recovery from the brink in his last five tournament appearances. At the U.S. Open in the quarterfinals, he was down two sets to love against Gael Monfils and was twice behind match point at 4-5 in the fourth before winning in five sets. In his opening contest at Shanghai against Leonardo Mayer, he saved five match points. Versus Wawrinka, Federer fended off four more.

It was another great triumph of the mind for Federer, who had been outplayed across the board from the backcourt by Wawrinka. Perhaps his back was a factor as well down the stretch. Federer played not to lose rather than going with his usual formula of trying to win with his instinctive shotmaking genius. He was not on his game by any means, missing innumerable chipped backhand returns, holding back off the forehand, not serving particularly well. In the end, Federer banked on a strategy that getting almost every ball back at the end and giving Wawrinka a chance to choke would yield success. It did.

That exhilarating skirmish between Federer and Wawrinka would be the last singles contest played in the tournament. If Wawrinka had managed to convert one of those four match points, he would have earned the right to face Djokovic and there would have been a final. Moreover, it is entirely possible that if Wawrinka had wrapped up victory over Federer when he had his first three match points at 5-4 in the third, Federer would have walked off the court uninjured. It is all conjecture, yet cruelly ironic. Wawrinka’s psyche must be deeply scarred by losing such an agonizing match, and Federer paid a substantial price for spending so much time to oust his friend. Now Wawrinka may be dangerously insecure about his upcoming Davis Cup duties, and Federer might not even be able to play, or could play in a compromised physical state.

Meanwhile, the two Swiss competitors must leave aside some hard feelings following their confrontation in London. Simon Briggs of The Telegraph in London reported that Wawrinka and Federer had a heated discussion after the match behind the scenes because Wawrinka was agitated by some things said by Mirka Federer (Roger’s wife) during the contest. The two men must move past that dispute in France and be fully supportive of each other in a genuine team effort at the end of a long 2014 campaign.

As for Djokovic, he completes 2014 with a bundle of significant prizes, including a second Wimbledon title run, four Masters 1000 championships, a third straight Barclays ATP World Tour Championships crown, and seven singles titles in all. Add a July wedding to his longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic and the birth of his son Stefan in October, and one can only conclude that Djokovic will fondly recollect this particular year for the rest of his life.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.

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