On the final day of the ATP season in 2009, a dramatic shift in the tour’s hierarchy seemed to loom.  Having absorbed a second straight loss to Del Potro in the round-robin stage, Federer fell to Davydenko for the first time in his career after the sort of hard-fought semifinal that he typically wins.  Meanwhile, Nadal had continued his second-half swoon with a ghastly three-loss stagger through his group that underlined and italicized the questions concerning his future.  One year later, however, the familiar two-headed monster has devoured all of the 2010 majors in addition to the season’s most prestigious title, the year-end championships.  Repelling Soderling and the other barbarians at the gates, Nadal and Federer have reaffirmed their mastery over the tournaments that matter most.  Nowhere has this trend become more apparent than in the past week, during which they advanced to the final in contrasting but characteristic manners.

Revealing just enough fallibility to inspire opponents with hope, Nadal sporadically flirted with danger during the week before channeling his fierce focus when absolutely necessary.  After a disappointing serving performance brought him to the brink of a straight-sets defeat against Roddick, the Spaniard relied upon a pair of pinpoint returns to claw through a pivotal second-set tiebreak.  Ceaselessly improvising and adapting on his least comfortable surface, Nadal encountered somewhat less resistance from a bleary-eyed Djokovic and a Berdych still searching for self-belief.  Yet his hotly contested semifinal with Murray emphasized Rafa’s vast reserves of confidence, gradually accumulated through the most successful season of his career so far.  The world #4 temporarily lifted the spirits of British fans when he saved two match points late in the third set and broke the world #1 when he served for the match.  Probably still flustered from his failure to convert those opportunities, Nadal soon found himself trailing 1-4 in the decisive tiebreak as ghosts of past losses to Murray stalked into his mind.  Confronted with two virtually must-win points on his own serve, the Spaniard delivered two intelligently placed serves that brought him back into the tiebreak with minimal tension.  Although he still trailed by a mini-break, those two points allowed Nadal to collect himself and turn the tide with one last surge.  Tellingly, the world #1 has won all four of his tiebreaks this week, demonstrating his talent for balancing aggression with patience.

Having lost both of his previous meetings with Federer at the year-end championships, Nadal will enter the final with little pressure on his shoulders.  Fatigue may undermine his efforts after that 191-minute marathon with Murray, much as it did when he played Federer in the Madrid final after a four-hour semifinal victory over Djokovic.  On the other hand, an emotionally draining five-hour victory over Verdasco at the 2009 Australian Open failed to forestall the Spaniard from frustrating Federer’s pursuit of history two days later.  Unlike his rival, Nadal often profits from playing himself into a tournament, navigating through complicating situations and settling into a rhythm.  Since the last edition of the sport’s most famous rivalry, his serve has significantly improved; this development has eroded (although not nullified) the vital advantage in this area that Federer once held. Whether or not he wins the final, though, Nadal already has proved his ability to contend on his least favorite surface.  During this week in London, he defeated four top-10 players who previously had winning or even records against him on hard courts.  Moreover, nothing that can happen in one match will override his triple-Slam conquest this season or his unquestioned status as #1.  The stakes on Sunday stand less high for him than they do for his rival.

Slashing past three consecutive top-5 opponents, Federer has often glowed blindingly in the cool, controlled atmosphere of the O2 Arena.  The Swiss legend immediately seized control of his semifinal against Djokovic with a dazzling sequence of groundstrokes that understandably baffled the Serb.  Having sucked the suspense out of this highly anticipated clash, Federer raced through a clinical first set filled not only with trademark serve-forehand combinations but with smartly orchestrated net approaches and backhands consistent as well as penetrating.  Early in the second set, he suffered a predictable dip in intensity as he slid into nonchalance, yet his vigor swiftly returned with consecutive love service games.  Still a little less than its best, his serve must improve against Nadal in order to provide him with the mid-court replies that he needs in order to maximize his offensive potential.  Blasting a return past Djokovic on break point at 4-4 in the second set, Federer showed a willingness to run around second-serve returns and unleash his forehand; this tactic probably would reap rewards against the Spaniard by testing his faith in that still-new serve.  The 16-time Slam champion also struggled in converting break points, twice allowing the Serb to wriggle free from triple break point in his service games.

As Nadal has patiently conquered one citadel after another, Federer has manifested a virtue central to aging champions:  stubbornness.  Although he has lost six of their last seven meetings (ironically, the only win came on clay), he defiantly maintains that he can defeat his rival.  In the long interval since their most recent Slam encounter, Federer may have quelled the doubts and fears that Nadal awakened in him at Wimbledon 2008 and that visibly disturbed him when they met six months later in Melbourne.  But he will not find a better opportunity to score that reassuring, revitalizing victory than in these circumstances, on the surface most tilted in his favor and against a Nadal as weary as the almost indefatigable Spaniard is ever reasonably likely to be.  If his rival can snatch even this crown away from him, his supremacy on all surfaces will become virtually absolute, a painful realization for Federer to ponder during a Swiss winter of discontent.  The pressure thus rests squarely on his shoulders to defy the march of time and Nadal.  But Federer is playing his best tennis of the season and will have gained confidence from a series of resounding straight-sets wins in which he distinctly outclassed three players who had defeated him on prominent stages during 2010.  Remarkably, he can accomplish something that he never has accomplished before:  consecutive victories over every other member of the top five.

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Having begun at Indian Wells, the path of our match previews has traversed three continents while journeying through Miami, Monte Carlo, Charleston, Stuttgart, Rome, Madrid, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, Cincinnati, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Paris, and now London.  This article represents the final match preview of 2010, and we hope that you have enjoyed the journey with us.  Plenty of other action lies ahead before the New Year, however, including the previously promised article on Simon, Davis Cup coverage, and a series of articles that look back across the breakthroughs (and breakdowns) of the season.  If you think that the players have a short off-season, ours is virtually non-existent.  See you soon.

 

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