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Nadal had won six of his last seven finals with Federer and was intent on strong-arming the Swiss again as the pair squared off for the climax of today's ATP World Tour Finals championship.
Refusing to give up any more ground, Federer took the moment on the rise, winning six of the last seven games to dispatch Nadal, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, and capture his fifth career ATP World Tour Finals crown before a sellout crowd of 17,500 at the O2 Arena in London.
"I'm just really happy the way I was able to finish the season in style, playing some of my best tennis," said Federer, who collected the $1.63 million champion's check in capturing the championship in undefeated style for the fourth time. "Then obviously beating Rafa in the final makes it extra special because of the year he's had."
The second-seeded Swiss is the third player in the tournament’s 41-year history to win the title five times, joining fellow five-timers Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras.
Serving for his 66th career title, Federer opened with an ace and struck a forehand volley winner to earn triple championship point.
Serving and volleying on the first match point, Federer found the tape with a stretch forehand volley. On the second championship point, he hooked a forehand winner into the corner and then paused, uncertain if the ball landed inside the court. When confirmation came, Federer screamed in excited exuberance.
Committed to the offensive cause even after Nadal rallied to win the second set, Federer said he produced some of his best tennis with the match on the line.
"I always believed in a plan from start to finish," said Federer. "Like at the first match I came out and played against [David] Ferrer, I think I always stayed true to how I wanted to play. It was the same thing today.
"Even though I lost the second set, I'm really happy the way I stayed positive throughout the match today. I thought it was clearly a very high level. I don't know if I could have played any better, so I'm really pleased. It was interesting the way he played. But I stayed offensive. I knew in the long run that could be vital, which it was at the end, so I'm very happy."
Argentine World Cup captain Diego Maradona, actor Kevin Spacey, Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood, Princess Beatrice and London Mayor Boris Johnson were among the famous faces in the crowd for this 22nd match in the ongoing Roger vs. Rafa rivalry. It was the 18th career final between the two with Nadal leading 12-6 in their final face-offs.
This final featured some of Federer's finest shot-making as he actively tried to step inside the baseline and take the match to Nadal.
"He played unbelievable," said Nadal. "He was unplayable I think in this first set. I just can congratulate him for his victory and another great tournament for him. He played unbelievable during all the week without losing a set, being in the final. So his level was very high. I tried my best this afternoon, but he was better than me."
It was Federer's first win over Nadal since the 2009 Madrid final.
The world No. 1 holds a 14-8 edge in the rivalry, thanks to a 10-2 advantage on clay. On hard courts, Federer leads 4-3.
The second-seeded Swiss is the first man to win ATP World Tour Finals titles in three different cities. He captured consecutive championships in Houston in 2003-2004, lost a dramatic five-set final to David Nalbandian in the 2005 final and beat James Blake and David Ferrer in successive Shanghai finals in 2006 and 2007.
A near-flawless Federer surrendered just one set in sweeping five victories en route to his first season-ending crown since 2007.
The victory ended a season that began with Federer dismissing Andy Murray in straight sets to claim his 16th career Grand Slam championship at the Australian Open.
The 29-year-old Swiss collected his fifth title of the season. Federer’s three other titles this season came at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters in Cincinnati (defeating Fish), the If Stockholm Open (beating Leonardo Mayer) and the Swiss Indoors Basel (dethroning defending champion Novak Djokovic).
He closes 2010 with a 65-13 record and will finish in the top two of the South African Airways ATP Rankings for a record eighth straight season.
Aiming for his first career ATP World Tour Finals title, Nadal looked weary after fighting off a tenacious Andy Murray, 7-6(5), 3-6, 7-6(6), in Saturday's pulsating semifinal that was one of the highest-quality clashes of the season and spanned three hours, 11 minutes.
"I know I didn't spoil his vacation after this he's had an amazing year, one any player dreams of," Federer said during the trophy presentation, before turning to Nadal and adding, "Well done this week and for the special year you've had: congratulations."
Little separated the rivals through the first give games. Federer was serving at 3-all when Nadal gained a 0-30 advantage, but Federer snuffed out the threat and held for 4-3.
Federer earned the first break point of the match in the seventh game.
Serving at 3-4, Nadal unleashed his bounding top spin into Federer's one-handed backhand—a pattern he has used effectively on clay in tormenting Federer with a topspin torrent—but the blue hard court elicits a lower bounce than red clay and Nadal barely had time to take a step as Federer measured the bounce, stepped in and blistered an angled backhand winner crosscourt to break for 5-3.
Dancing around his backhand, Federer cracked an inside-out forehand winner to close out a first set in which he hit 14 winners compared to 2 for Nadal. Consistently sending serves into the corners of the box, Federer won 20 of 23 points played on his serve, including all 15 first-serve points, and did not face a break point in the opening set.
Shaking some life into his legs, Nadal, who lost the first set he played in the tournament to Andy Roddick before rallying for a three-set round-robin win, dug down to summon his familiar fighting spirit in the second set.
Forcing play on pivotal points with his fierce forehand, Nadal wrong-footed Federer, who tumbled to the court as the nine-time Grand Slam champion held for a 4-1 second set lead. Nadal extended his lead to 5-2 one hour into the match.
Federer finessed a forehand drop shot winner and sliced an ace out wide to hold at love for 3-5.
Nadal lashed a serve into the body for double set point and then caught Federer sneaking in and put a pass at his feet that Federer could not control as Nadal collected the second set to level the match after 67 minutes of play.
Vulnerable in critical stages of past matches this season, Federer had squandered match points in losses to Marcos Baghdatis in Indian Wells, Tomas Berdych in Miami, Djokovic at the US Open and Gael Monfils in the Paris semifinals.
This time, Federer played with confidence and fired his forehand with conviction in the crucial stages today.
With Nadal up 40-15 in the fourth game, Federer attacked off a backhand return and lifted a backhand drop volley winner. Late on a backhand, Nadal sent the shot beyond the baseline and then hooked a crosscourt forehand wide, and suddenly Federer had break point. Nadal tried to cross Federer up by hitting his second serve up the middle rather than targeting the safety zone that is the Federer backhand return.
The top seed paid the price as Federer whipped a forehand he followed to net and broke for 3-1 when Nadal's running forehand was well wide. Federer continued to drive his backhand at times in breaking again for a 5-1 lead before closing out his eighth career win over Nadal in a rivalry that dates back to the 2004 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.
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