It wasn’t a vintage performance, but Roger Federer will not worry about that. While other members of the world’s top four nurse their aches and pains and contemplate their losses, the former world No. 1 showed the world Saturday just how far he is from fading into the night by winning his 16th straight match and reaching the final of the ATP World Tour Finals for the seventh time.
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Only Ivan Lendl (nine) and Boris Becker (eight) have reached more. And when he plays Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Sunday, Federer will be making his 100th appearance in a final at all levels courtesy of a 7-5, 6-3 victory against Spain’s indefatigable David Ferrer. So the records require updating once more, and Federer professes to be surprised.
"I’m shocked every time that I’ve reached so many finals or won against so many players or whatever the record is," he said. "Obviously, it makes me very happy and very proud that I’ve been able to do it for many years at the highest of levels."
He had been asked if he was surprised at how emotional he became every time he had a win. "I’ve always been an emotional tennis player," he replied, dry-eyed. "I used to be so emotional when I used to lose. But I try to keep my emotions in check while the tournament is going on, because I feel I need to save it in case there is something more. Can’t be an emotional roller coaster throughout your whole career."
Federer also feels that he is probably a better player now than he was when he was cleaning up one Grand Slam title after the next.
"I think it’s normal to improve as a player," he said. "Why should you move backwards? I think as time goes by, as much as you practice, actually the matches make you a better player. I used to have a weak backhand. But then everybody played to my backhand. So, obviously, I was always going to improve my backhand eventually. I don’t think Novak’s (Djokovic) forehand used to be a strength. Now it’s a weapon."
Federer had enough weapons to deal with Ferrer, whom he has beaten all 12 times they have met. But it was a struggle, especially toward the end of the first set when he had to fight his way through five deuces in the 10th game before holding on to his serve. He then broke twice in succession to win the first set and go ahead in the second set, and he never looked back.
"I think he was better than me, no?" said Ferrer with his usual sheepish expression. "Maybe in the first set I had a chance at 5-4. But then I did mistakes with my backhand. And in the second set, he was playing with more confidence. He was playing better."
Such a simple explanation and all true.
In the second semifinal, Tsonga outplayed Tomas Berdych 6-3, 7-5. And even if the big Frenchman felt he did not produce his best tennis, it was good enough to take care of Berdych, who was feeling a little off color and never could produce the power play that helped him get past Mardy Fish, Janko Tipsarevic and Ferrer during the week.
And, in his usual style, Tsonga finished it off with a flourish. Having broken to lead 6-5, he took himself to match point with his seventh ace of the match and then produced a stunning half-volley drop shot off a full-blooded Czech service return. The crowd roared and responded, too, as Tsonga did his Muhammad Ali shuffle around the court after clinching his place in the final.
Tsonga has been playing without a coach for the past few months and does not seem to be doing too badly. As an Adidas player, he does have access to two of the world’s best coaches, Darren Cahill and Sven Groeneveld, who are contracted to the company. But Tsonga insists he had no conversations on a technical level in the past week.
“No, I didn’t speak with anyone,” he said, smiling. “You know I’m just by my own. Sometimes we are two or three in my head, so it’s enough!”
Amazingly, this will be the third consecutive Sunday that Federer will find himself playing Tsonga. Two weeks ago, it was in the final of the ATP Masters Series event in Paris; last Sunday, the pair met in the first of the round-robin matches here. Federer won both matches, but Tsonga beat him at Wimbledon and Montreal earlier in the year.
This grand finale to 2011 promises to be an occasion to remember.