Roger Federer - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Seven

Undefeated since the US Open, Federer eyes a third consecutive title and a record sixth title at the year-end championships.  For the fifth time, he has marched to the final without dropping a match, and on only one of the four previous occasions did his opponent halt him on the final day of the ATP season.  When a historic achievement has hovered within Federer’s grasp before, he generally has seized the opportunity with both hands unless his archrival interposed himself.  No sooner did Nadal falter at Roland Garros, however, than the 16-time major champion secured the major that had eluded him for so long, completing the coveted career Slam.  And no sooner had he tied Sampras’ towering record for major titles than he surpassed it at Wimbledon with one of his career’s most memorable performances.  To be sure, Lendl’s record at the year-end championships does not rise near the stratosphere of those other goals, which have been compared not without reason to the holy grails of Federer’s career.  Nevertheless, his relentless brilliance at the event reserved for the sport’s elite still would testify to his greatness on a significant albeit lesser level.

Throughout this week in London, Federer has looked almost destined to win a title for which most favored him before the tournament began.  Buffeted by the confluence of injuries (Murray), fatigue (Nadal), and complacency (Djokovic), the rest of the top four withered and feel like the decaying leaves of autumn.  In the autumn of his own career, the Swiss master profited from his greater rest to escape a perilous three-setter against Tsonga and record a vintage display of shot-making against Nadal.  That latter demolition of his nemesis surely caused his confidence to soar, propelling him through his next two matches with an immaculate record.  When his forehand has wavered this week, as it did late in the first set of his semifinal, Federer leaned upon his serve to release him from pressure not just by earning free points but by opening the court for his first groundstroke.  He has varied the placement in both service boxes ingeniously, sometimes stretching opponents with angles and sometimes forcing them backwards with body serves.  Especially effective this week is his wide serve to both sides, which often has allowed him to step inside the baseline and approach the net with minimal risk.

Almost as impressive in London, Federer’s final foe has looked progressively more convincing with each match after falling to the Swiss in three sets last Sunday.  After a fiercely contested three-setter with Nadal clinched his semifinal berth, Tsonga suffered no letdown when he faced the less renowned Berdych two days later.  Although he let one second-set lead slip away, the Frenchman did not flinch when he served for the match, as he had against Rafa.  Eyeing an opportunity unprecedented in his career at stake, he showed the composure of a veteran in snuffing out the Czech’s last stand without drama.  Like Federer, he has served intelligently throughout the tournament and exploited the superior forecourt skills that have separated him from many of his rivals, although not from the Swiss.  Each man’s strengths mirror those of his opponent, for both have built their games around serves, forehands, and crisp volleys while protecting fallible backhands and often struggling with returns.  A contrast to the laterally oriented baseline battles that have defined the ATP, their meeting should feature plenty of points in which one or often both players maneuver inside the service line.

Colliding for the eighth time this year, Federer and Tsonga have met on every surface in 2011 and at five of the calendar’s most important tournaments.  Two sets into their Wimbledon quarterfinal, Federer had won nine consecutive sets from the fiery French star.  Few anticipated the response from Tsonga, who produced one of the most startling headlines in a startling season by rallying to win that match and its Montreal sequel.  Amidst mounting murmurs of his decline, the Swiss master avenged those summer setbacks with an emphatic victory at the US Open, followed by his triumph in the Paris Indoors final two Sundays ago.  One Sunday ago, their rollercoaster meeting reflected traits familiar from watching both players.  Habitually a slow starter, Tsonga did not find his emotional intensity throughout a first set controlled by Federer.  Increasingly susceptible to mid-match lulls, Federer then faltered early in a second set dominated by Tsonga.  With both players finally fully engaged at the same time, the third set followed a pattern of service holds as neither could string together a series of penetrating returns to create pressure on the other’s serve.  Federer enjoyed the crucial advantage of serving first, though, and his assassin-like timing allowed him to strike for a match-ending break when Tsonga let his guard slip.

Among the questions for the final match of the ATP season, then, are whether the Frenchman can elevate his intensity earlier in their encounter and whether the Swiss can maintain his own intensity as the match progresses.  In a year filled with unpredictable narratives, a title for the mercurial Tsonga would seem a fitting finish.  On the other hand, a year dominated by two members of the top three would seem more complete with one notable statement from the third.