It was one of those “if only” moments that actually came to pass. It was the final that London—and the tennis world—craved: two champions facing off for the WTF title in their 22nd match, their 18th final, but only their fourth contest in almost two years.
While the head-to-head odds were in Nadal’s favor—14-7—Federer had won both their previous indoor encounters, both of them at the year-end tournament.
But there was an air of curiosity about this particular encounter, a certain topsy-turvy quality.
Nadal, who normally builds through a crescendo of increasing court-time towards the big events, came into London having played less than anyone. So cautious was his preparation that he missed the Paris Masters entirely.
Meanwhile Federer, who usually paces his schedule with clockwork precision, had packed his end-of-season with the enthusiasm of a teenager: 18 matches during the same six weeks that Nadal was absent.
Both had method in their madness. Both had adopted a different approach to winning the title they craved.
The tension was palpable, and the celebs were out in force to soak it up—Princess Beatrice, Thierry Henry, Diego Maradona, Ronnie Wood and Kevin Spacey. But every one of them was put in the shade by the Roger-and-Rafa fireworks.
In the first few games, even the two protagonists were edgy, but the Federer attack soon got the blood pumping as his signature forehand zipped at such speed down the line and across court that Nadal seemed rooted to the spot.
Nadal tried taking the attack to the Federer backhand, but hours of practice on that single-handed top-spin drive turned the attack back on the Spaniard. It’s a rare thing to see Nadal wrong-footed and outpaced, but that is what Federer’s first set of tennis achieved. He converted his first break point and served out the set to love, 6-3, in half an hour.
Nadal regained his composure despite Federer’s continued aggression, and took his own chance to break in the fourth game. Although the brief Federer lapse quickly passed—and the crowd roared their approval through a purple patch of tennis from both men—that break was enough for Nadal to draw the match level, 6-3.
It was Nadal who committed the first fatal error in the final set, despite leading 40-15 on his serve. Federer began again to step inside the baseline and take the ball on the rise, and with a few forehand flourishes, he broke to take a 3-1 lead.
The bombardment from that forehand, from vicious angles and wide serves, from crisp net attacks and, crucially, from a masterful offensive backhand display, began to force more errors from Nadal. The Spaniard’s own backhand broke down, and his forehands started to land wide. Another half hour saw Federer sweep to a 6-1 set and the title.
Federer’s WTFs statistics are, in themselves, remarkable: a fifth year-end title from six finals and nine appearances, the fourth time he’s won it undefeated, a 34-7 win-loss record.
And this year, that topsy-turvy approach to his end of season yielded some more big rewards. Federer’s 21 match wins between the U.S. Open and the year-end was a personal record.
But most significant—in this high-quality, high-octane, high-prestige event—were Federer’s attitude, eagerness, focus and aggression.
They signal a man still hungry for improvement and success, and still willing to work hard to satisfy that hunger.