Federer left with questions after loss at ATP finals

BY foxsports • December 15, 2009

Roger Federer's year, which began in tears before reaching the heights, is over.

The man who finished as the No. 1 ranked player in the world fell at the penultimate hurdle of the ATP World Tour Finals on Saturday -- beaten for the first time in 13 meetings by Russia's Nikolay Davydenko 6-2, 4-6, 7-5.

The last match of the ATP year will pit Davydenko against U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, who offered further proof of his rising status in the game by outlasting Sweden's Robin Soderling in a forehand slugfest that went all the way down to the wire after Soderling had led 4-2 in the final set. The Argentine won it 6-7 (1), 6-3, 7-6 (3).

So Federer failed to give his flag-waving Swiss supporters -- and a large percentage of the capacity crowd -- what they craved. It would have been fitting for the man many regard as the greatest player of all time to grace the final of this superbly staged event, but he found himself up against an opponent who simply refused to capitulate.

Davydenko -- who missed the first three months of the season through injury -- has confounded those who tend to underestimate him by finishing with a flourish, winning ATP titles in Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai and now overcoming the one man he could never beat.

No one hits a cleaner ball. No one has a faster arm. The forehand cross-court winner that caught Federer flat-footed when the Swiss reached break point in the last game came out of nowhere -- a stunning shot that was all about timing and speed.

Federer was asked if Davydenko gets the respect he deserves.

"Well, I don't know about you guys," he replied. "I have. I think it's most important that he has respect from his fellow players. I think he didn't have the easiest of time when people were suspecting him of (betting on) the sport. He had a cloud over his name which was not very fair. To be able to continue playing this well when he was being asked always the same stupid questions must not have been very easy for him. So I respect him not only for that but, obviously, for the player he is."

Yet while there was no question that Davydenko deserved his victory, Federer left us puzzling over just what this defeat meant. There is no question that he has enjoyed an amazing year, recovering from the emotional loss to Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final to win the French Open for the first time and then Wimbledon, reaching the final of the U.S. Open and winning two ATP Masters titles. Anyone would kill for such a record.

And yet ...

There is no doubt he should have beaten del Potro at Flushing Meadows after playing the most glorious tennis for a set and a half. Had he clinched the second, the match would have been over. But he let del Potro back in and couldn't fight him off. Then, on his return to the tour, he lost to Novak Djokovic in the final of his hometown event in Basel, fell early in Paris and has looked only fleetingly good here.

Where does this leave him? He insists the hunger is still there and the pressure is off. If that is the case, talent alone should carry him on to many more triumphs. But will the feeling that he has nothing left to prove -- all four Slams in his pocket and more Slam titles than Pete Sampras -- enable him to retain that knack he had of pulling out the tight ones, of coming through in the crunch?

Federer -- who still refuses to employ a full-time, top-flight coach -- seems to know what he is doing wrong.

"I tried everything to have a good start but I wasn't able to do it again so, sure, it's disappointing. I think a slow start has cost me two out of the four matches here. You can't turn around every match against the top guys because you don't have a cushion anymore at the end. Things swing so quickly at the pace we play at."

But he was in a mood to look on the bright side. "I still had a great season," he said. "Looking at how deep the game is right now, to finish on top for me is phenomenal."

How phenomenal 2010 proves to be for Roger Federer remains to be seen.

Richard Evans, who commentated at Wimbledon on BBC Radio for 20 years, has been covering tennis since the 1960s and has reported on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is the author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." He lives in Florida but is still on the tour 20 weeks in the year.

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