The first weekend in November had two of the media’s favorite tennis names to play with.
Ana Ivanonic had just won the WTA’s Tournament of Champions in Bali and would return to the top 20 for the first time in over a year.
Meanwhile, in the chillier climes of Paris, Rafael Nadal had announced—just minutes ahead of the draw—that he was withdrawing from the final Masters of the year due to shoulder tendinitis. News of an injury problem for the world No. 1 would normally be enough to sideline any on-court action, but not this week.
Across the world in San Diego, the renaissance of tennis in Italy continued with the magnificent Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta proving that good things can come to talented women even as they approach the unspoken territory of their 30s. The two, for a second time, were spearheading their country’s Fed Cup campaign over the USA.
Yet all these stories had to take a back seat to two ATP 500 events unfolding at opposite ends of Europe.
In Valencia, David Ferrer was aiming to win the tournament that he partially owns in front of an adoring home crowd. He was also aiming to confirm his place at the World Tour Finals for only the second time in his long and consistent career.
The popular and hard-working Spaniard’s first WTF was in Shanghai in 2007, and he won every match except the final against Roger Federer. That turned out to be his only indoor final—until this week.
Now 28, Ferrer has enjoyed a resurgent season. He finds himself in his fifth ATP final of the year and back in the top 10 for the first time in two years. More importantly for his WTF campaign, he has recently produced some of his best ever hard court tennis with a semi-final finish in Kuala Lumpur and a final place in Beijing, both in the last month.
There was an added bonus in Valencia: the city was hosting the fifth all-Spanish final of the year, and the fourth in which Ferrer was involved. His opponent, Marcel Granollers, was appearing in only the second final of his career, though that was far from obvious in the quality of the tennis he had brought to the tournament. But such was the impetus that Ferrer carried into this final that Granollers could do no more than accept his straight sets defeat and revel in the 20-plus places he will climb in the rankings.
Ferrer was rewarded with a rise to seventh place in the ATP race for London and the kind of reception that Federer, playing in Basel, was hoping to emulate.
The Swiss Open final was, if possible, even more full of significance for two finalists who had already guaranteed their London places months ago.
It brought together Federer and Novak Djokovic in what has become one of the most discussed rivalries at the top of the men’s game. Little wonder, since this would be their 18th meeting, their fourth in three months and a repeat of the final in Basel exactly a year ago. So closely interlinked has their tennis been in the latter half of 2010 that they have swapped the No. 2 and No. 3 ranking four times.
Basel-born Federer had won his home tournament three times in a row until Djokovic beat him in the 2009 final. The Serb also came into this year’s final in some of his best form since that victory.
It has been a long time coming. Djokovic, endowed with so much talent and so many options on his racket, showed a new maturity and concentration in dominating his bête noir, Federer, in the U.S. Open semi-finals. And that same consistency, underpinned by clean and accomplished hitting, has marked his tennis throughout the second half of the season.
As their head-to-head suggested, this final between the two men turned out to be a tight affair, both showing by turns attack and defence, confidence and nervousness.
They know each other’s games—both strengths and weaknesses—so well that tension finds its way into the proceedings at the most unexpected moments. It happened in New York, with Federer winning match points in the final set only to concede to a rampant Djokovic.
It happened in Basel, too. The first three games all went to deuce, two of them offering up break points. Federer made the breakthrough first to go 4-2 up, but they continued to resist each other with early ball-striking and line-clipping shots.
Both have quick feet, flexible defence and imaginative attack, and they kept one another moving around the full extent of the court in a chess-match of tactics. Even serving for the first set, Federer found himself a break point down, but held to take it 6-4. The stats told the story: 38 points to Federer and 34 to Djokovic. It was close.
In the second set, Federer failed to keep his foot down and, in the blink of an eye, Djokovic broke through to take a 3-0 lead. With the Federer serve barely clearing 50 percent, he found himself on the defence and making unforced errors against a confident and fluid Djokovic. The Serb served out the set, calmly nullifying a break point in the process, 6-3. For the ninth time, they would have to go the distance.
Federer had an early chance to break his opponent, but two wild volleys gave a 30-15 advantage to Djokovic rather than a 0-40 deficit. It was an edgy moment that suggested a wavering in the Federer confidence. It turned out, instead, to be a turning point.
Where Federer had struggled to find his first serve, his stats for the set surged to 71 percent. Where his forehand had missed the lines, he began to find length and penetration. This was no more evident than in the fourth game when two forehand winners brought up a break point and a pressured Djokovic conceded with a double fault.
That was all Federer needed. The concentration locked in, his serve found the lines, the passing shots forced errors from the Serb, and soon Federer was serving at 5-1. With new balls, he delivered one of his best games. Match point, won with a searing volley, brought a fist pump more reminiscent of Nadal than Federer, and a bullet of a backhand pass secured the win.
Basel is his 65th title, which moves Federer ahead of Pete Sampras into fourth place on the all-time leader-board.
It is Federer’s second title from three finals in fewer than four weeks.
It is the ninth tournament that he has won at least four times, and his home crowd could not have been more proud.
Despite all that, there is another big prize up for grabs next week at the final Masters of the year in Paris.
Federer has already equalled Andre Agassi’s tally of 17 Masters titles and needs one more to equal Nadal’s record 18. Paris would be the ideal place to do it, especially as it is the only Masters on the tour where Federer has yet to reach a final.
And, just to add an extra frisson to the proceedings, Djokovic is the title-holder there, too. Encounter No. 19 could be just around the corner.