By the middle of the third set, when Juan Martin del Potro led Roger Federer 3-0, it appeared that their round-robin match would go down as the logical end to Federer’s most disappointing season in a decade. The forehand shanks, the head-spinning inconsistency, the brief summoning of the old brilliance to win a tiebreaker, followed by the bottoming out in the third: It was an all-too-familiar scenario for Federer Nation. Del Potro had won three of their previous four matches, and after an excellent fall of his own, the big man looked poised to send himself into the semifinals in London, and send Federer home early from the World Tour Finals for the first time in five years.
Everything appeared to be in order for del Potro as he served at 3-1 in the third. He hit two overheads for winners to make the score 30-15, and cracked what looked to be a sure forehand winner on the next point. Then something happened: Federer stuck his racquet out and the ball came back over the net. Del Potro, surprised, had to back up and let it bounce. With his momentum going the wrong way, he pushed a backhand long. On the next point, the same thing happened again: Del Potro hit more penetrating shots, the type that had been winning him points for most of the match, only to watch as Federer found a way to return them. Finally del Potro missed. When he missed again a few minutes later, Federer had the break. More important, he had broken the pattern of his 2013. This time, even after his obligatory desperate mid-match comeback, he had something left for the finale. By the end, Federer would turn the vintage defense of that game at 1-3 into vintage all-around play for a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5 win.
Otherwise, everything about this Federer-Del Potro tussle was predictable. Like their last six matches, it went the distance. It featured the fundamental battle between del Potro’s power and Federer's variety of ways to blunt it and work around it. Points often came down to whether Federer could keep his backhand slice out of del Potro’s strike zone and maneuver the big man far enough of position to open up some court. And as usual, momentum between the two men swung early and often. In the first set, Federer started badly and was broken, then came all the way back from 1-5 to 4-5. He even had a pair of break points in that game, but del Potro swatted them away with timely big serves.
The second and third sets followed the same script, except for that last part about del Potro's timely good play at the end. When it mattered, del Potro couldn't close. As fine a win as this was for Federer, it was an equally bad loss for the Argentine. Each time it appeared that he had the older man beaten, each time he looked ready to knock him off the court, del Potro hesitated. While Federer was the more aggressive player, hit more winners, and came to the net more often, del Potro still committed only one less unforced error than his opponent—playing solid tennis wasn’t enough this time. After his win over Federer in Basel two weeks ago, his third straight over his former nemesis, del Potro appeared, finally, to have passed Federer on the tennis totem pole. Yet today he showed that he still doesn’t feel like the favorite when he plays Federer, still doesn't believe that he should beat him. Del Potro still sees the Federer aura when they play, and unfortunately for him, he'll see it again when they face each other in a big match next season.
For Federer, this might be his best performance and most satisfying win of 2013, mainly because he made it look like it wasn’t 2013. His ace count had been low this year, but he popped 10 of them today. He played with variety and aggression, came away with more winners than errors (39 to 36), and was an efficient 22 of 29 at the net. He missed a few of the same forehands on big points that he’s been missing, but this time he kept giving himself chances. He showed that his one-handed slice backhand can still be a force for good against Delpo. And if he really had “lost a step” this year, Federer found it again today. It was his scrambling defense that started his comeback in the third.
And what did it get him? A date with Rafael Nadal 24 hours from now. Federer may have to gain another step for that one. But that's OK: He can only get back to where he wants to be by taking them one at a time.