Not a Moment Too Soon
I know at least a few Roger Federer fans who, after an appropriate interval of high-fiving, air-punching, and Woo-hooing this afternoon, calmed down long enough to think or say: Sheeesh, Roger what on earth took you so long?
You know what they mean. Federer all but saved his best tennis—perhaps not his technically or tactically best tennis, but his most commanding, in-control, even typically "Federerian" tennis—for the very last match of the ATP regular season, the final of the Paris Masters 1000, aka Bercy.
The performance was evocative of those "full-flight Federer" years when Roger could do no wrong. He would play a Masters final and crush some dude, 6-1, 6-4, and you went to sleep thinking all is well in the world. The way Federer handled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—a big fella who is a lot to handle by any definition—was reminiscent of all those 3-2-3 lickings The Mighty Fed laid over the years on the unfortunate souls assigned to meet him on Grand Slam turf.
Federer used the word "ecstatic" to describe how he felt about the way he played today, a 6-1, 7-6 (3) victory. I actually lost track of the number of times Federer used the world "great" in his on-air post-match interview on the floor of the Palais Omnisports, as in "I played a great final, I started great and I finished great in the tiebreaker."
Those bits about the start and finish? They were music to the ears of suffering Federer fans worldwide. Especially the part about the great finish.
This was the kind of match everyone knew he could play against Tsonga, a quality opponent who, despite legs that had to be somewhat heavy after his three-hour match with John Isner the previous night, came to the party with a big, big game and a home crowd at his back. Had Tsonga converted either of the two break points he had in the very first game, we might have been back in that semi-bad place Federer has inhabited for significant periods, or during critical moments, this year. Instead, Federer watched an aggressive return by Tsonga sail out, and then fired a service winner to get back to deuce.
In the blink of an eye, Federer held. Tsonga won the first two points on his subsequent service game, but Federer reeled off four straight points to break, and that was about all for Tsonga—he never led and the first set flew by in a flash, 6-1. Tsonga rallied in the second set and did what big men with atomic serves do best: He forced a tiebreaker. But he made a silly error on the very first point and Federer followed that with a blazing cross-court forehand winner to go up 2-0; he never took his foot off Tsonga's neck after that, winning the 'breaker 7-3.
I reprised the key moments in the match to show the degree to which Federer did what needed to be done, at the moments he needed to do it, and boy—what a difference it makes. This was nothing like the quarterfinal Wimbledon clash between the two men, in which Federer won the first two sets and then watched, hangdog and slope-shouldered, as Tsonga removed the lunch from Federer's plate and ate it. This was a far cry from the U.S. Open semifinal in which Federer failed to convert either of two match points—on his own serve, no less—against Novak Djokovic.
Hail, this wasn't even like the Roland Garros semifinal in which Federer stopped Djokovic's 43-match winning streak. Sure that was a great effort and an epic achievement. This one, though, was routine in the way it used to be for Federer.
Students of psychology will notice that Federer won the very first tournament he played this year, and then found ways to lose at every other one he played until last week, when he bagged his hometown title in Basel. It's as if, at age 30, Federer had trouble dealing with the demands and/or mustering the appropriate degree of enthusiasm, energy or confidence for the great in-between. Having started the year with a win, perhaps he felt all was as it should be; why not just relax and see how it all plays out?
Now, Federer is afire and probably the most dangerous player lining up for the ATP World Tour Finals. And it isn't like the occasion is going to overwhelm him. He's not just the defending champion, he's a five-time winner at the year-end clash of the elite eight. HIs biggest challenge may be staying awake until the trophy presentation. He's traveling to London with a new spring in his step and toting a 12-match winning streak. Andy who, you ask?
None of this should surprise anyone. Only a fool would have written off Federer, just as only a fool could have expected the gravy train he rode for so long to go on forever. Sustained greateness is probably beyond Federer's grasp at this point, but there's no reason he can't close out this year with another resounding fussilade—and a reminder of who he was, and still at times is.