by Pete Bodo
Somehow, we might have known all along that it would come down to this: Rafael Nadal has one man to beat to win his first ATP tour championships, a title that has been won at least once by almost every iconic player who spent his entire career playing in the Open era. Oh, there are exceptions—Marat Safin and Mats Wilander prominent among them—but through thick and thin, despite lingering questions about the format and the validity of the results, the top players have supported this event and the very top ones have secured it more than once.
Nadal stands poised to join that elite company (although he's already numbered among them on the sheer strength of his resume) Sunday, and the last man standing in his way, in the last match of the year, is Roger Federer.
Surely you remember him? The "former world No. 1." The man whose lunch Nadal, the current No. 1, has so often snatched off his plate. The man who's fought a grand battle but has been unable to stop the Nadal onslaught, even in places where he was once thought impregnable. . . Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Australian Open. But there's still one fortress high up on the hill, one redoubt where Federer has sought and found refuge as well as distinction and confirmation of his ascendancy—the annual year-end championships.
Federer, 29, has won the tournament his 24-year-old nemesis has yet to master on four occasions, leaving him just one shy of the high-water mark established by Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras. The latter bagged his fifth title at the year-end championships, now called the World Tour Finals, in 1999 when it was played in Hanover, Germany.
If you had to choose a place for Federer to make a last stand, it would be at the O2 Arena, the site of the World Tour Final. He's 33-7 in year-end championships (both round-robin and single-elimination matches), and is a perfect 4-0 this year, ripping through opponents, suffering not a hiccup thus far.
Nadal, by contrast, was a paltry 4-7 before this year's World Tour Final (now improved to 8-7, one match above .500). Most significant, he's lost twice in the semifinals to Federer in previous year-end championship meetings without winning a single set or even forcing a tiebreaker.
Although Nadal slashed and bolo-ed his way through three straight round-robin matches to land safely in the semis, he was almost cut down by Andy Murray. Nadal had to go into overtime, 7-6 (6) in the third and 3:11 on the clock before he emerged as a finalist. Battle-hardened or battle-rattled? Take your pick.
So what you have here is a classic confrontation between a player looking to cap one of the most glorious years of Open era tennis ever (Nadal is the first man since Open-era pioneer Rod Laver to win three consecutive Grand Slam titles in the same year) and one looking to salvage one in a big way. Federer won the only major where Nadal faltered this year (the Australian Open), but the value of bookend wins over Nadal in 2010 can't be lost on him. Federer is too great a player to be driven by some sort of "stop Nadal" impetus, but he's not so great as to ignore the value of the old saw, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." With no chance at regaining the year-end No. 1 ranking from Nadal, there's no doubt that whatever lies on the plate is, at best, at room temperature.
This role of spoiler is something new to Federer, and we don't really know how he'll react to it. He's played some glorious tennis this past week, but he's still shown fleeting signs of his greatest shortcoming over the past 12 months—the inability to lift his game at those crucial moments usually traveling under the name, "break point." The tale of match points squandered is one of the principal themes in the larger saga of Federer's fall from the peak of grace.
It's good to remember that Federer is like certain race horses. Give him his head, let him run free and unlimber those muscles and instincts, and he's hell on wheels. But crowd him, make him taste the bit or the crop, and it can be a slightly different story. Although Federer has come through plenty of perilous situations, the feeling remains that wars of attrition are not his forte. He can handle stiff competition alright; he's shown that time and again, in major after major. But at times it also seems to have an inhibiting influence on his genius, as if being harried by an opponent is a unpleasant distraction.
Nadal, by contrast, seems at times to relish the basic insecurity that defines a very tough match. He's hell on wheels in a very different sense, less interested in demonstrating his genius than on showing off his ability to overcome the most daunting of challenges with strength, stamina and determination. That's why he was, almost from get-go, such a problem for Federer—what larger challenge can any tennis player have imagined when Federer was at the peak of his game?
More than any other player, Nadal has shown a willingness to be thrown into the fire, seemingly just to discover whether he can find a way to escape getting burned to death. His kind of courage is more visceral and elemental, Federer's is more ethereal and abstract, in the sense that execution under pressure is still in the end a matter of technique, or the ability to play with impeccable technique while under mental and emotional stress.
So these two long-standing and starkly contrasting rivals meet again, and don't for a moment think that each time isn't different. Nadal has to be bouyed by the fact that after his dismal showing last year (sure, there were reasons for that, but it was dismal nonetheless), he's shown that he's capable of winning this event. Federer has to be encouraged by the way he's playing, which is like a guy on a busman's holiday, with the understanding that in the end he doesn't really have a whole lot to lose should he come second, no matter how much he has to gain with a win.
To some degree, though, the performance of both men this week has to be seen through the narrow lens of court surface. It's had an impact on how both men have fared. The court has been slow enough to offer Nadal the options he likes, vis a vis how far back he plays from the baseline, or how willing he is to engage in rallies, which for him can almost be defined as opportunities to turn defense into offense—to sting and hurt an opponent just when the poor guy is entitled to feel like he's making progress.
But the height of the bounce, a characteristic easily as significant as court speed (and related to it, but not quite as obviously as it may seem), will work in Federer's favor. If he can hit more backhands somewhere within instead of above his strike zone, he'll feel more confident in the rallies. And both the whiplash forehand and go-for-broke down-the-line backhand will get great penetration on this surface. The fact that the tournament is indoors also helps Federer, for he's more comfortable laboring in the lab, while Nadal seems to take great pleasure out of working in the field.
Lastly, Nadal is entitled to feel ambivalent about his need to win this event. A player can't face too many moments of reckoning in a given year, not if the concept is going to have real meaning. And Nadal faced a number of them already in 2010, starting at Roland Garros. Those of us who were there had no trouble accepting at face value the enormous sense of gratitude and relief Nadal showed and articulated when he proved that he could indeed come back from a difficult 12 months to win his most beloved major again. And then there was the U.S. Open, where he faced the challenge of completing his career Grand Slam.
It's hard to imagine Nadal feeling like this is a "must win" tournament, as much as you might argue that it is. And losing to Nadal is just as unlikely to send Federer into crisis. He's beyond that. Both men are entitled to go out there and give the ball a ride, just to see how things work out. And that, I think, tilts the scales to Federer, for nobody can put on a comparable demonstration of sheer shotmaking skill and versatility.