Roger Federer started the year with 66 titles to his name. By October, shockingly, he had only one more title. And then, it happened.
It was inevitable. A hat-trick of indoor titles (Basel, Paris and O2) ensured that the legendary Swiss maestro ended the year at his rightful place- number 3 behind Djokovic and Nadal. Murray will have to win a Slam to be considered seriously, and Federer has made sure that he finishes in the top 3 for the ninth consecutive year (pipping the Brit to the post by reaching his 7th World Tour Final). This was his 10th consecutive year-end Championship, and his SIXTH title.
To put things into perspective, Sampras had five and Lendl had five. Nadal has none, and Djokovic has one. Stunning numbers, which only proves that there is nobody better than Federer when it comes to conditioning, lasting and pacing the body throughout a grueling 11-month season. He finishes every year as one of the top two- and has proved to be the greatest indoor player of all time after a scintillating display over the last one month. His forehands have that quick snap back in his wrists, and his cross-court flicked backhands look lethal enough to destroy a Kingdom.
What’s more- this was his fifth year end Championship title where he went undefeated throughout the tournament. That ensures a $1 million kitty instead of the usual cheque of $7,50,000 at this prestigious competition.
His path to his record-shattering sixth ATP World Tour final title wasn’t all that easy, though. On the way, he had to beat an inspired and erratic Frenchman (probably in the top 3 on hard courts this season) twice, had to demolish old foe Nadal once, and then beat lone American Mardy Fish in uninspiring fashion. Beating underdog Spaniard David Ferrer in the semi-finals made him outright favorite for the title once Djokovic and Nadal were knocked out during the group stages in massive upsets. Tsonga knocked out Nadal and fellow Serb Tipsarevic combined with group stage dark horse Berdych to knock out a weary Djokovic.
Federer faced Tsonga for the third Sunday in a row- after beating him in the Paris final and the first group match of the World Tour finals. This was after the Frenchman became only the third player after Nadal and Djokovic to defeat Federer twice in a season after 2002- in a sapping Wimbledon quarter-final and at Montreal in straight sets. The monkey was on both backs, and one could feel that the electric Frenchman was the only guy who could, on current form, upset the relentless Swiss wizard. He came ever so close, after being expertly dismantled in the first set. The second set was a battle of nerves, with Federer invariably faltering on crucial points, handing the mental edge to Tsonga once again. He probably had that Wimbledon match on his mind, because Tsonga was the FIRST player to ever beat Federer in a Grand Slam after losing the first two sets. The loss was so sapping, that another massive heartbreak followed for Federer in the US Open- where he lost his second consecutive 2 sets to Love lead, this time against a dangerous Djoker. Nevertheless, Federer had the better of Tsonga after his 1.5 month long rest, and was looking to wrap up his barren season in fine style. The second-set tiebreak was Federer’s to lose after being 5-2 up (and holding a championship point at 6-5)- just like the entire match was, after he held a break point at 3-2 in the second for a SECOND and final break of serve. Surely, he wasn’t going to hold Championship point and lose again, would he? The tiebreak was a momentum-swinger, with Tsonga pulling out some massive first serves to dismantle Federer’s plan and end his cruise to the title. 1 set all.
The third set was a spectacle. The first few service games were clearly warm-up routines for both the players, each one waiting to make their move at the slightest hint of fragile nerves. Federer held a break point at 3-2, but failed to convert once again after Tsonga blew the crowd away with some superb forehand shot-making. He was just not going away. Federer started to appear frustrated, but his serve miraculously came back to life- with him stringing a host of first serves and looking quite comfortable serving first.
And then, the moment came. 4-3 in the final set. Federer started positively, slapping a cross-court forehand return off a weak Tsonga second serve. A drop-shot got the crowd going on the second point, and Tsonga was 0-30 down. But he just never went away, and came back with three consecutive points- two of them unreturnable first serves. But, there was something different about Federer- even though he was being bullied and battered on break points. He appeared cautious, of course, but there was an edge to him- an edge that was missing during the first half of the season.
He wanted this title bad. There was to be no records AGAINST him anymore. After twice blowing break points on deuce, Federer decided to turn into the aggressor and attacked a second serve again. It paid off, and a weak lob had Tsonga once again in the familiar position of having to break Federer to stay in the match.
This time, though, there was no changeover. There was no break, and in the blink of an eye, Federer rushed through his final game. He wanted no distractions and charged through his service motions, stringing together 3 quick first serves, including an outrageous forehand drop volley, that had no answer. He was in the zone. A deft tough in the midst of brutal battle. With 3 match points again, RF pulled out one final ounce of brilliance with a powerful serve and a superb approach shot that had Tsonga retrieve for his life.
A cautious, yet routine forehand slap into open court, and title number 6 was his. Six year end titles, and surely not his last.
Indoors or not, he is the strongest player in the world right now- but sadly, it came too little too late as far as Slams were concerned. He will look to carry momentum into season 2012, much like he did after defeating Nadal here (a match that saved his season) in the 2010 finals. After that, he won his first title at Doha in January, and will do well to prevent a subsequent dip in form yet again.
After all, two years without a MAJOR was not on the cards. It never was. Unlike pal Tiger Woods, the Swiss Master is still at his peak and has suffered minor mental blips- often fatal- but has not looked technically weak. His forehand has good and bad days, but that wrist-snap is still as elegant as ever.
2012 could be his final charge to glory, and could bring an opportunity to claim a few more feathers in his cap- one of them, the most difficult, of being able to claim the World Number One ranking for a few more weeks in order to beat Sampras’s record of 286. Federer is on 285, as it stands. He is most likely to add to his tally of 16 Slams in 2012, and will have to work on those crucial break-point decisions in order to beat the younger guns.
Most notably, though, he would love an Olympic Singles title- a title that continuously eluded him. He has wanted this for 8 years after a disappointing 2004 (Lost to Berdych) and 2008 (Lost to Blake) campaign. He is a gold medalist, yes, but so is Wawrinka.
And so is Rafael Nadal.