Roger Federer - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Five

Federer vs. Ferrer:  The only undefeated player remaining in the tournament, its five-time champion looks poised to extend his perfect record into the final Sunday.  On hard court and clay, indoors and outdoors, Federer has throttled Ferrer in all eleven of their meetings, including an ignominious rout in the 2007 final of the year-end championships.  That match halted one of the finest weeks of the Spaniard’s career in emphatic fashion while marking the endpoint to one of the finest seasons not only the GOAT’s career but perhaps in tennis history.  During the four years that have passed since then, they have collided only three times.  Although Federer dismantled Ferrer once more in London last year, the diminutive counterpuncher extended him to a final set in their other two encounters.  As the Swiss master’s career wanes, his consistency has begun to ebb in occasional lulls that could play into his opponent’s hands.  After dominant first sets against Fish and Tsonga here, for example, Federer’s focus waned early in the second set and resulted in a victory less straightforward that it initially seemed.  But equally significant was his ability to regroup in the third set, especially on serve, and reaffirm his authority rather than letting the momentum turn against him for good.

With that ugly head-to-head record looming over his head, Ferrer shoulders the burden of proof to demonstrate that he can challenge the defending champion.  From the outset, most options lie closed to him.  Despite his improved serve, he cannot rely upon that shot to equal or surpass Federer’s deadly delivery.  Nor can he outhit the Swiss from the baseline in a battle of bruising forehands; the contest for court positioning inevitably will tilt in Federer’s direction, considering his far superior shot-making ability and heavier first strike.  If Ferrer scurries frantically behind the baseline, simply focused on retrieving everything that he can, he will allow Federer to close off angles and methodically finish off points at the net, an area in which he excels.  Instead, Ferrer must remain in the counterpunching mold (for he has little choice but to do so), but he must counterpunch intelligently with groundstrokes as deep as possible that keep his opponent moving and off balance.  For two and a half matches this week, the Spaniard executed those tactics to perfection by displaying uncanny anticipation and redirecting the ball down both sidelines with sparkling timing, albeit not pinpoint accuracy.  Meanwhile, his passing shots threaded needles that left Murray, Djokovic, and initially Berdych raising their eyebrows in grudging admiration.  His compact physique and efficient ball-striking can profit from the surface’s low bounce, a characteristic that Federer’s low contact point also exploits.

Rarely short of willpower, Ferrer proved this week that his game can succeed against elite if battered opponents on the surface least suited to it.  Few players would have rebounded from a disastrous 0-3 collapse in London, when he failed to win a single set, and marched within two service holds of a 3-0 record there a year later.  Nevertheless, he bitterly regretted letting Berdych slip away in a match when a victory would have allowed him to play Tsonga rather than his perennial nemesis.  Should he bring that fatalistic attitude to his semifinal, he will not seriously threaten Federer.  If Ferrer needs a timely injection of optimism, though, his coach could remind him of what happened to the Swiss star two years ago in a semifinal on this court.  Armed with a 12-0 record against Nikolay Davydenko, Federer stumbled to a shocking defeat that propelled his conqueror to the most significant title of his career.  Will another ambush await him against another of his long-trampled victims?

Berdych vs. Tsonga:  Down a set and twice down a break in the second set to the ATP roadrunner par excellence, Berdych certainly could have let his mind drift towards the offseason and 2012.  Then he Yet he swiftly broke back immediately after surrendering his serve both times and denied Ferrer any fresh hope in the third set.  After he had carelessly thrown away a tight second set to Nadal, Tsonga also could have wandered mentally when the tide seemed destined to flow against him decisively.  Yet he reeled off 11 of 12 points from a span that started in the second game of the third set and ultimately decided the match.  Not normally known for as much fortitude as each of their opponents, both the Czech and the French proved themselves unexpectedly durable in the efforts that earned them their first semifinal berths at this tournament.  Supplanting the ATP top two, who dominated most of the season, are two more mercurial but immensely talented figures who have approached this week with far more desire than either Nadal or Djokovic.  Their semifinal should compensate in substance for what it lacks in glamor.  Whereas a title here would add a relatively minor luster to Novak’s or Rafa’s resumes, it would represent the most significant achievement of Berdych’s or Tsonga’s career.

Only once have these sporadic ambush artists and sporadic underachievers collided on the court.  In a Beijing semifinal, they split two competitive sets before Berdych established control in the decider over Tsonga en route to his only title of the last two seasons.  Unlike the contrasting styles of Federer and Ferrer, the tactics of these two semifinalists distinctly resemble each other.  Both men will unleash explosive first serves that they complement with massive forehands.  Both men have built their accomplishments this week upon their ability to follow either a penetrating serve or forehand to the net, Tsonga more often than Berdych.  For significant stretches this week, both men have struggled with their timing on returns or their rhythm in rallies that lasted more than a few strokes, Berdych less often than Tsonga.  Neither possesses many alternatives if their serve falters or their fierce groundstrokes misfire, so each should hammer away with their trademark weapons regardless of results.

Among the factors that could separate them is the Frenchman’s vibrant imagination, which crafted exquisite drop shots that left Nadal helplessly marooned in the forecourt.  More straightforward in his approach, Berdych did display an acute sense of the court’s geometry with his volleys this week and during his semifinal run at the Paris Indoors.  Nevertheless, he lacks Tsonga’s ability to combine bone-crushing power with a feathery touch, a mixture probably absent from everyone else outside the top 5.  Berdych’s main advantage lies in his steadier focus, a factor separate from his (sometimes unsteady) nerve.  Although he can crack under pressure, the Czech generally does not let a lead escape him through the complacency that saw Tsonga donate three double faults as he served for the match against Nadal.  Deep into his third three-setter of the week, he delivered the coup de grace to a reeling Ferrer with minimal ado.  But will his accumulated fatigue haunt him as Tsonga stretches the court both laterally and vertically?  With players so evenly matched in strengths and weaknesses, the second semifinal should offer the superior suspense to justify its selection as the evening showpiece.