What better way to celebrate your 100th appearance in a final than to claim the ATP World Tour Finals title for a record-breaking sixth time — and showing off your undiminished skills in front of 17,500 people?
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Oh, yes, the tears were welling in Roger Federer’s eyes as he clinched a 6-3, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3 victory over popular Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the O2 Arena because the cool Swiss hides a lot of emotion behind his stately exterior.
And he was ready to share his reasons for feeling that way. “It feels very special indeed,” he said. “I’ve been trying to block it out the entire time I’ve been in London. I just tried to recuperate from Basel and Paris and hopefully get through the round-robin stages. So now it’s finally reality that I’ve been able to win six World Tour Finals and it’s an amazing feeling.”
Federer made a point of bringing into the conversation Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras, both of whom had won the event five times. “I still don’t think I’m better than Lendl or Sampras,” he said. “I’m actually happy they are being mentioned while I’m doing this because they have done amazing things in our sport. Sometimes legends do get forgotten rather quickly, which is unfortunate.”
By closing with three consecutive titles, Federer said he believed he had turned in the strongest finish to a season in his career. He then went on to address his earlier failings.
“I think it’s a mental thing,” he said, referring to matches lost at Wimbledon, to Tsonga, and at the US Open, from match point on against Novak Djokovic. “Not only, though. Sometimes it’s also the player playing better than you. Jo played better than me at Wimbledon. Same as Rafa (Nadal) in the final of the French Open. Novak in the semis at the US Open.
“It’s fine to respect that. But when it happens that often, I do have to question myself that maybe I did something wrong. That’s one of the reasons why I did take six weeks off, to actually think it through, to get into the right mental mindset.”
It seems to have worked. Almost too well for Sunday’s final, in fact, because Federer so dominated the early stages that he led by a set and a break and there seemed to be a danger that the match, as a contest, would end anticlimactically. But Tsonga had shown at Wimbledon, when he fought back brilliantly to win in five after trailing the former champion by two sets to love, that he can never be counted out. His talent is too explosive, his attitude too defiant. And he showed his numerous supporters in the crowd just why he has become such a dangerous contender this year.
Going after Federer’s delivery when Roger served for the title, Tsonga swept to 0-40, fell over at 15-40 as he tried to clear the net with his forehand and then utilized that weapon properly on the next point to set up a winning volley that gave him the break. At 5-5 it suddenly became a different match, and even though Federer had a break back point in the next game, the French forehand did its work once more and they were into the tiebreak.
A poor backhand volley that plopped into the net did not augur well for Big Jo, and when Federer, in his most flamboyant mood, took a 5-2 lead with a slashing drive volley that clipped the line, there seemed no way back. Once again, Tsonga refused to lie down and forced an error from his opponent with a deep backhand into the forehand corner. An ace gave Federer championship point, but Tsonga wiped it off the score sheet with a disdainful winning forehand. Finally, having secured set point with a 7-6 lead, Tsonga’s eyes lit up at a second serve and thundered it back so hard and so deep on to Federer’s baseline that the defending champion had no chance of fashioning a return.
The crowd loved this act of defiance and, for a while, the result hung in the balance, as Tsonga continued to attack at the start of the third. But Federer had never really been knocked out of his rhythm and the accuracy of his returns finally took their toll in the eighth game when Tsonga was forced to relinquish his serve on the third break point.
There was no denying Federer when he served for the match a second time, and there was no denying the best man won. Tsonga, in fact, in his quiet amusing way, rather made a point of it.
“I think he played better than me in the first and the second set and also the third set,” Tsonga said with a little smile. “So I was a bit lucky to play three sets today.”
In recent years, all matches on the ATP tour have been played as best of three, leaving only the Grand Slams and the Davis Cup to go to the possible maximum of five. Federer, almost alone among his peers, believes the final match of the ATP Finals should be played as best of five.
“I remember sitting in a room in Shanghai where the players were asked if they wanted best of five sets at the year-end final,” Federer recounted. “I was the only guy who said we should have best of five. OK, I said, ‘Let’s make it best of three. I don’t care.’
“I do care, actually. If I would have served it out today, it would have been over in a hurry. I almost felt the spectators weren’t quite ready for it to end quite yet. So maybe the year-end match should be best of five. I do believe that, yes.”
The problem is that Federer floats over the court, doing less damage to his body than most players, so convincing the others is going to be difficult. But it seems to be a battle Roger is prepared to take on as he looks forward to a new season in January with his enthusiasm as high as ever.