Tennis fans in Sweden must have thought they had died and gone to heaven. Held in the week after the conclusion of the intense Asian swing at the Shanghai Masters, it is a time of rest for the top men on the tour. Ahead lays the final push through Europe to the last Masters in Paris and, ultimately, the year-end jamboree in London.
Yet the beautiful, chilly city of Stockholm had not one but three of the men who expect to contest the World Tour Finals next month: home hero and world No. 5 Robin Soderling, Czech No. 6 Tomas Berdych and, cream of the crop, No. 2 Roger Federer.
Soderling was aiming to win his home title for the first time in eight attempts—his best finishes were as runner-up in 2003 and 2008. So his heart must have sunk when Federer announced, only a couple of months earlier, that he was adding Stockholm to his schedule.
In the event, Soderling’s chances of the title came to an abrupt end well before the expected final with Federer, in a quarterfinal loss to the unseeded German Florian Mayer.
Berdych also fell in the first round, so it was down to Federer to make the tennis headlines. Playing in Stockholm for the first time in 10 years, he appeared to be on a mission: to tick off as many new landmarks in his career as possible.
By winning his first match, he became the only active player on the tour to reach 900 ATP matches. The first of those matches was played, as 16-year-old, the week after he was crowned Wimbledon Junior Champion 12 years ago. He lost that one, but sailed through Taylor Dent in his 900th.
In his second match, Federer won his 50th match of the year to become only the fifth man in the Open era to win 50 matches in at least nine straight years.
If he went on to win the Stockholm title, he would reach 64, and tie with Pete Sampras in fourth place on the Open era titles list. It would also mark the 18th different country in which he had won. From the United States to Europe, from Japan to Canada, from the Middle East to China: Federer is, literally, a worldwide champion.
The final turned out to be a royal occasion in more ways than one. Played to a capacity 5,000-plus crowd in Sweden’s Royal Tennis Hall, it was attended by Crown Princess Victoria, and it was she who would present the silver globe of a trophy to the winner.
The closest to royalty on the current tennis tour, Federer himself, had made far from faultless progress in the tournament. He was a set and a break down to Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, in a match riddled with unforced errors, before finding his attacking game to take the win.
Against Ivan Ljubicic in the semis, he also went a break down early on, and trailed right up to the moment Ljubicic served for the set. Federer assaulted the net, forced errors from his opponent, and broke back. Federer won the tiebreaker and then a more straightforward second set, 6-2.
And the same pattern seemed to unfold in the final. Mayer, in only his third tour final, had played one of his best ever weeks in taking out Soderling and Feliciano Lopez.
Mayer may also have drawn some inspiration from Viktor Troicki who was at the same time on his way to a first ever ATP title in the Kremlin Cup. The Serbian sits just four places above Mayer in the rankings, at 43, and he too had performed giant-killing feats en route to the Moscow title, taking out No. 13 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 18 Marcos Baghdatis.
Mayer’s self-effacing character and, more importantly, his swinging, uninhibited, athletic brand of tennis ensured strong Swedish support, and he won an early break from Federer. But Mayer’s combination of power and touch brought the best out of the No. 1 seed, who responded with some of his most varied and fluid tennis of the week to break Mayer back.
Federer rode this momentum to take control of the match, rushing the net, picking off touch volleys and taking confident overheads. It turned out to be the top seed’s most intense performance of the week, and his most fleet-footed. With precision timing, just as he’d done against Ljubicic the night before, Federer broke the Mayer serve to take the first set 6-4, which enabled him to open the second set on his own serve.
Mayer continued to power both backhand and forehand ground shots to either wing, and throw in drops and a few aces for good measure. But Federer’s standard stayed high. In the sixth game, he broke the German, and eventually served out for a 6-3 win.
So with his 64th Sampras-matching title duly won, Federer will head home for a few days break after reaching two consecutive finals in as many weeks—Shanghai and Stockholm. But then he has yet more business to attend to.
His local tournament in Basel beckons, and it carries particular significance because Federer’s three-year winning streak there was brought to an end in the 2009 final by Novak Djokovic.
Federer, therefore, will be after revenge on his home turf. What’s more, if they meet in the finals again, it will be their fourth confrontation from the last five tournaments they have both played. Theirs is becoming one of the key rivalries of the tour, and any meeting is certain to bring both high quality tennis and high tension to the court.
At this stage of the year, too, the 500 Basel points have great value because the the world Nos. 2 and 3 have twice swapped places in the rankings since the U.S. Open. Federer now has the end-of-year ranking in view and will be keen to guarantee the No. 2 spot to cap an eighth consecutive year in one of the top two places.
There’s a still bigger prize up for grabs the week after Basel: the final Masters of the year in Paris.
Federer has already overhauled Andre Agassi’s record number of Masters match wins, which now stands at 221. However, he still equals Agassi’s tally of 17 Masters titles and needs one more to equal Rafael Nadal’s leading 18.
Paris would be a good place to do it, as that is the only Masters on the tour where Federer has yet to reach the final. To add a little more spice to the occasion, Djokovic is the title-holder there, too. So there are incentives aplenty to keep Federer’s engine in turbo drive.
But judging from his words in recent days, his desire to play and to win is undiminished. Not only did he cheerfully consider a 1,000 matches to be well within his reach in the next two years, he also confirmed that the No. 1 ranking was also an itch that needed scratching: “It’s not that important to be two, three or four. For me, it’s either number one in the world or everything else.”
All of which suggests that Federer is still a man on a mission.