The ATP World Tour Finals has come to an end and Roger Federer was the runner up for only the 2nd time in his 8 finals appearance at the glitzy tournament. For the first loss you have to go back in time to 2005 when the tournament was still in Shanghai and a certain David Nalbandian was still in the top 8. Since then he has won 4 more times for a record 6 titles. He was going for his 7th but was stopped by the immovable object, current World #1 Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic won in two straight sets but the quality of tennis made it one of the best two setters in recent memory. As usual Novak was best at defending while Roger was typically aggressive and came to the net a lot more than his younger opponent. He created magic with his Wilson wand, deft drop shots and volleys, forehands cross court and backhands kissing the line. For me, almost all the jaw-dropping shots came from Federer (yes I am biased). Actually in the top 10 shots of tournament selected by the ATP, Roger featured in 4 of them, far more than any other player. However mixed in with the genius were sudden sharp drops in form for just brief periods. Short lapses of concentration, but they came at the most inopportune times. Roger had broken Novak in the beginning of both sets but in the first set he was broken back to take it to a tie break where, despite producing some scintillating tennis, he gave up just one break to Novak who snatched it from him right away. Again in the second set while serving for the set 40-15 at 5-4, he lost focus for a split second and Novak had broken right back. Then for good measure Novak broke him one last time to take the set and the match 7-6(6), 7-5.
Their stats were pretty similar for the most part. In fact out of a total of 191 points, Novak won 96 to Roger’s 95. The major difference was Roger’s 42 unforced errors to his 30 winners (compared to Novak’s 19 winners to 28 unforced errors). Given his aggressive style of play, this was perhaps inevitable. As hesaid,
“Obviously I was going to try to go after my shots and not just hand it to him. That’s just how I play tennis. If I have 80 errors and I win the match, I don’t care. I really don’t. I shouldn’t have been broken as often as I was broken today, but then again, that obviously has something to do with Novak, as well.”
It goes without saying that as a Federer fan I am gutted, because this wasn’t a repeat of the Olympics Finals where it seemed there was no fire left Roger to win. This literally went down to the wire and a couple of points separated the two and decided the end. Roger really wanted this, you could tell. His eyes were misty when he went up to receive the runner’s up trophy. But Federer is nothing if not class and his speech was gracious and sincere, thanking everyone from his opponent to the fans and sponsors and throwing in a mention for Lars Graff the umpire who had just officiated his last match before heading off to retirement.
In a way that only champions can, Novak and Roger just got better as the tournament progressed. Along the way, Novak was untouchable, whereas Roger was a bit more up and down (and was defeated by Delpo). But their quality of tennis and tenacity just kept gaining momentum, and both for good measure defeated local hero and Olympic champion Andy Murray. Murray was able to take a set off Nole but with Federer he had no such chance. Andy’s temperament at clutch moments still casts a shadow over his abilities though he has grown much more this year.
And so the ATP World Tour Finals comes to an end ushering in the end of a very long tennis season. It took me a while to write this post because I was still trying to process Roger coming so close and yet being shut out at the last moment. But then I saw the post final backstage Federer video clip on the ATP website. This was probably filmed merely an hour or so after the match and there he was, smiling, obliging photo and autograph requests and laughing it up with Francesco Totti. And then I realized that this ability is a huge part of what makes him the champion he is today. Yes, it was a loss, and it was oh so painful. But within this sport of high drama and intensity, Roger, more than anyone can absorb the highs and lows with the same finesse and elegance he shows in his numerous sponsor photo shoots and commercials.
Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem IF is part of tennis lore with the line, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same” written on the wall of the Centre Court player’s entrance at Wimbledon. There is also a video of Roger and Rafa reciting this poem, two players (active today) who have faced these situations (often with each other) much more than any other player on tour and have dealt with them with equal grace and humility.
That backstage clip (and the hundreds strewn across youtube), give evidence to this amazing ability Roger (and Rafa) possesses. When I saw Roger making jokes with Totti I thought of 2 other lines from that poem,
“If you can make one heap of all your winnings, And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss”
Roger will take a well-deserved break in the coming months. He will shed all the losses of 2012, balance them with the winnings, put them away on a shelf and then start prepping for next year. Contrary to what naysayers keep saying, Roger isn’t even close to hanging up his rackets. Come 2013 the account balance will restart at zero and Roger will be rearing to go, to give it all like he has for past 15 years on tour, for the sport that he loves so dearly.
Ultimately, for us fans it means we needn’t worry. Roger will figure it out, he always does.