It was the last ATP event of the year, and the crème de la crème joined battle in what must surely be one of the tour’s most demanding events.
It follows 11 months of sweat and toil, in heat and rainstorm, under sun and stars, amidst laser light shows or the hush of hallowed lawns.
From early January, in the deserts of Doha and the humidity of Australia, until the finale in the cool, grey chill of London’s November, the top men in tennis fought for the privilege of this moment.
And the crowds—a quarter of a million by the end of the week—came in droves to see the final chapter played out, to see who would be crowned the best of the best in this given week, in this particular arena.
The whittling down began almost at once.
David Ferrer and Andy Roddick, No. 7 and 8, won not a match.
Tomas Berdych and Robin Soderling, No. 5 and 6, won just a single match apiece.
No. 3 and 4, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, won two each and reached the semi-finals.
And the top two in the world, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, took up their rightful places in the final: both unbeaten.
This story follows, from the sidelines, the race from the champion’s first Round Robin match to his final victory—an end of year opportunity, to preserve a start-to-finish experience, in an amber-like afterglow.
The closer the calendar advanced towards the 21st of November, the hotter Federer became with the bookies.
Since his quarterfinal loss at the All England Club, he had won 29 of 33 matches during seven tournaments.
After a semi-final fall in the U.S. Open, he put together a match-packed, hard-court six weeks that began with the finals of Shanghai and continued to a 64th and 65th title, back-to-back, in Stockholm and Basel.
Federer even looked a favorite to win the Paris Masters. Eighteen aces in his quarterfinal match against Jurgen Melzer—a record tally for the Swiss in a two-set match—reinforced the view.
He was, after all, on a 12-match winning streak and had reached five finals in six consecutive tournaments. So when he failed to convert match points against Gael Monfils in the semis, it was a surprise.
Although he must have rued missing a chance to become the first man to reach the final of every Masters event, the loss gave him a few valuable days of rest, back in hometown Basel, before the sprint to London and the urgent need to adapt to a very different court surface.
The adjustment from super-quick to slow-and-low took a while, but it was quickly clear that he was singularly confident—even by Federer standards.
His pool may have been flooded by the most recent winners on the tour—Ferrer, Murray and Soderling—but he’d made more end-of-year appearances than the three of them put together.
“It’s a goal for the entire season trying to make it here, and once you make it here, trying to beat fellow top 10 players…You hope you can save your best for last.”
Federer opened his ninth consecutive campaign at the tour finale against David Ferrer, the man he had beaten three years before in the final in Shanghai.
The Spaniard was probably the most benign opponent in the Federer pool—he had lost to the Swiss in all 10 of their previous meetings—but Ferrer had hit some unusually good form at the end of the season.
He had reached five finals, starting in a successful South American swing, made the Rome Masters final, then enjoyed the indoor hard courts.
His first title was on clay, but the last, just weeks before, was at the indoor arena of his home tournament in Valencia.
Ferrer is a terrier of a man, driven by ever-charged batteries. His opening against Federer did not bode well: He seemed gripped by nerves. He hit long and wide, piling error upon error. Had he not, he may have taxed Federer more. The Swiss' timing was also out.
But, it was like fire consuming a figure of ice. Federer, aglow in flame red, raced to a 4-0 lead over the blue-and-white clad Ferrer, first set 6-1.
The second set was also an error strewn affair, with few aces and many break points on both sides, as the two struggled to find rhythm, length and touch. The Spaniard managed to break the Federer serve, but it counted little. Federer, with the superior weapons and movement, had the answers at the key moments, and won 6-4.
He had dressed for the part.
Red, a flame red designed to reduce the many blue-clad opponents to puddles that would drain into the Arctic blue of the O2 court.
The tennis hierarchy, indeed, seemed preordained by their chosen colors. The four who first fell by the wayside were Roddick and Berdych, top-to-toe in white, melted away like snow.
Ferrer and Soderling added ice blue to the white—Soderling even tried a touch of lemon zest—to no avail.
None made it to the final weekend.
Two who stayed a little longer adopted earthier hues: Murray’s white chest leavened by green, Djokovic’s navy blue infused with blood-red. Neither withstood the rising temperature, as Nadal’s purple orchid, highlighted by stamen-gold, burst into flower against the former man, while Federer’s fire evaporated the ocean-dark Serb.
Finally, Federer burned too hot even for the tropical Nadal. Singed by the relentless flames, the Spaniard too gave way to the sinuous lava flow. The volcano had done its worst—and its best.
Where Ferrer looked like a rabbit caught in Federer’s headlights, Murray posed a threat of different proportions.
The Scot had won their last two matches in consecutive hard-court Masters finals in Toronto and Shanghai. On those occasions, Murray had come out with an unexpectedly aggressive game, almost flawless hitting and astute tactics. He had also opened his account in London with a dominant mastery of Soderling, 6-2 and 6-4.
So coming into the Tuesday face-off, Murray was a major threat. Federer, though, threw down the gauntlet immediately. He won the toss and elected to receive: a bold message that knocked Murray off balance.
The opening game went to deuce, with Federer already attacking the net on Murray’s second serve. The Scot held but was broken to love on his next service game, while Federer held to love—then did the same again—and again.
Serving for the set, Federer dropped the first two points before reeling off four straight winners. He’d won nine of 11 net points and 91 percent of his first service points, despite a sub-50 percent first serve rate. Thirty-six minutes: 6-4.
In the second set, the Swiss storm continued. After three deuces on the opening Murray serve, Federer broke and served a love game of his own. He chipped and charged, brought up another break point and returned serve with a winning backhand down the line.
At 4-0, Murray, at last, got on the board but never looked close to intruding on a swift, silky victory. Match at 6-2 after 75 minutes.
Murray went on to pummel Ferrer into the ground, then drove Nadal to the brink in the longest and most riveting match of the tournament. They were performances to give Murray supporters heart ahead of 2011.
But the Australian Open looms, and Federer already seems to be playing more aggressively than in Melbourne 2010. Murray beware.
London has never been at the top of Federer’s list of favorite cities—usually citing Paris, New York and Rome—but he seems to be warming to the British capital, despite the freezing northerlies that ripped through the snuggest of scarves during the latter days of the WTFs.
Based in five-star splendor on the most eye-catching stretch of the Thames, the ATP certainly knew how to wow the competitors and their entourages. Each player was delivered daily by riverboat, through Tower Bridge, round the charismatic skyscape of Docklands and on to the crouching spectacle of the O2, seen from its best vantage point.
Once inside, each was treated to an individual locker room with all the necessary luxuries.
Federer was particularly enthusiastic about the venue and the crowd.
“Having the finals here in London makes great sense because it’s in a great time zone, in a country that loves sports, especially tennis. All the sessions are sold out, there’s such a run on tickets. So it’s hard to choose a better place than London. There’s tons of media here: I think it’s wonderful. The players love it.”
And yes, the fans flooded in—knowledgeable, eager to cheer, quick to be silent.
As Berdych enthused to the Press, “The crowd in London is definitely one of the best for tennis because you step to the line and you can hear something drop on the floor, it’s really silent.”
Federer also had to contend with huge support during his practice sessions. Yet even there, the hundreds who found him, pounding his way through his warm-up routine a couple of hours before match-time, remained quietly enthralled, happy just to watch the master at work.
After reaching the semis of the WTFs in 2009 and riding high on his first Masters title in Paris, barely a week before, much was expected of Soderling in London.
However, the Swede seemed flummoxed by the transition, from the fast Paris court to the slow London one, and was poleaxed by Murray in his opening match.
His longer second match against Ferrer, however, gave him a bit more leverage. He started to look like the player who had lately risen to the No. 4 ranking for the first time, albeit for just a fortnight.
Federer, too, had grown accustomed to the courts, and he also owned a 14-1 advantage over Soderling. Indeed, the Swede had won only two sets, both tiebreakers, in all those meetings. Worse, Federer had beaten him 6-1, 6-1, in under an hour, at the Shanghai Masters.
In fairness to Soderling, he gave Federer his toughest test in the Round Robins. The first set went to a tense tiebreaker, which Federer won to five. The second set was more straightforward, though Federer suffered one break and actually fired fewer winners than the Swede. However, the Swiss hit as many aces as the big-serving Swede, and won nine out of 11 net attacks. The win was near inevitable, 6-3.
For the victor, it was the knockout stage. For the vanquished, a swift boat down the Thames to pack his bags.
It’s easy to understand why Federer likes Paul Annacone.
Seeing him ply his trade on the practice court, the American is a watcher, an appraiser and a man of few and quiet words.
He takes his place alongside Federer’s friend and long-term supporter, Severin Luthi, complementing the Swiss coach rather than dominating him. Federer, after winning the WTF title, was eager to thank both.
“I just think the dynamics work really well, with Severin and Paul and me coming into the conversation just makes it really interesting. I can go with a very clear mindset into the matches.”
Federer has been through a few coaches, some for relatively short periods—Darren Cahill and Jose Higueras spring to mind—but this time it seems different. Federer has been unusually revealing about his reasons for making this one a permanent relationship.
“I had to regain some confidence. That only comes through winning matches. After having somewhat of a disappointing clay season where I wasn’t able to win any tournaments and didn’t play my best tennis, played a bit passive, it was important that I was able to pick up my game. I started moving better, started feeling well physically and mentally. I’m sure Paul has helped in this regard. So has Severin. That’s why I'm very happy with my team.”
The Annacone effect on tactics has been clear, and that “passive” Federer has been replaced by a new attacking, aggressive Federer, ready to chip and charge, willing to drill his top-spin backhand into point-winning perfection and to mix up his game around the net.
Annacone seems to relish the partnership just as much.
“When we first started talking, and I was starting to get to know him a little more in-depth, his level of excitement and desire to keep playing and to do it in a way that’s positive, optimistic, energetic and open-minded, really kind of floored me. I felt like I was with a 22-year-old.”
In a recent interview with the New York Times, he concluded: “I think one of the great ingredients of Roger is that his tool kit is so deep and so vast. I still don’t think anyone else’s tool kit kind of matches up to his.”
This could, it seems, be a partnership that runs and runs.
Djokovic’s opening match in London was a repeat of his semi-final against Berdych at Wimbledon. Since losing that match, however, Djokovic had compiled a 26-6 record on the tour against a floundering Berdych, with an 8-12 record, and the Serb hit the ground running at the O2.
Indeed Djokovic looked as though he was in a big hurry towards the weekend, playing near flawless tennis—right up to the ninth game in his second match against Nadal. There followed the now infamous contact lens incident and a match lost with huge frustration.
Djokovic came back quickly to dominate Roddick in his final pool match, and advanced to a highly-anticipated show-down with Federer in the semis.
What he couldn’t have predicted—nor done much about—was the form that the Swiss brought to their match. Djokovic put it quite simply: “I didn’t have a chance.”
Federer, for his part, described it thus: “It seems like it’s working this week…I hope I can keep this up for a long, long time.”
The opening set was gone in a trice, despite a high standard of play from the Serb. After half an hour, two breaks of serve and a 100 percent of points won off his first serve, Federer was 6-1.
Djokovic retaliated strongly to break Federer’s first service game and led 3-0, but he suffered an immediate attack from the Federer forehand, as the Swiss' focus kicked back in, the footwork sparkled and the score was evened up at 3-3.
It was another forehand that converted Federer’s sixth break point of the set to take a 5-4 lead and, in the blink of an eye, the set, 6-4.
It was a masterful display from the Swiss—possibly his best tennis of the tournament. Djokovic thought so: “He’s playing maybe the best tennis in 2010. Every ball kind of listens to him…He’s always on top of you, making pressure, he’s very aggressive.”
He was also in the final.
It’s an extraordinary record, though it’s not one from the tennis record books.
In every year, since he won his first Grand Slam title—Wimbledon back in 2003—Federer has been voted the “ATP fans’ favorite.” That’s eight consecutive years.
This year’s Player Awards were announced the day before the WTFs began and, just a day later, after winning his first match of the tournament, Federer was presented with his crystal trophy. Murray may have received a standing ovation when he took to the court earlier in the day, but few receptions compared with the roar that accompanied Federer’s presentation.
He was asked what he put his success down to. He replied that he tried to give the fans time, sign for them, have photos taken with them, and give them respect. Also saying, “It’s their support that gives me the motivation.”
It was an acknowledgement of one more year of patience and small kindnesses. It was true in London no less than anywhere else, and stories of photos taken, in the perishing winter wind on the O2 dock, with a hardy handful who had braved the elements for their special moment.
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.