“It was a good battle,” Roger Federer said after his 7-6 (6), 5-7, 6-1 win over Alexander Zverev in London on Tuesday. Judging by Federer’s straightforward description, it might sound like the match was a straightforward affair. And judging by the back-and-forth scores, it might sound like exactly the type of struggle, and exactly the type of result, you would expect in a match between a veteran champion making his 15th appearance at the World Tour Finals, and a 20-year-old making his debut.
But the fifth meeting between Federer and Zverev—the Swiss now leads their head to head 3-2—was defined by its surprising moments rather than its expected ones. After playing a strong and solid opening set, and building a quick 4-0 in the tiebreaker, Zverev suddenly lost control of his major weapon, his forehand. Two went long, two went into the net, one went wide, and Federer had escaped with the first set, 8-6 in the breaker.
Yet Federer hadn’t stolen away with it in the expected manner. Through the first 10 games, he had been the more creative and aggressive player, using his slice more often, opening up the court earlier, and aiming his shots closer to the lines than the comparatively conservative Zverev. But when it came down to the crunch in the breaker, Federer—perhaps tactically, perhaps nervously, perhaps a bit of both—dialed back the aggression and let Zverev beat himself.
Federer continued in that steady-as-she-goes vein in the second set, and it earned him an early break. But when he tried to open up his game and force the action again—when he looked ready to soar into full flight—Federer stumbled. Up 30-0 at 2-1, he double faulted two times in a row, dumped a forehand into the net, and was broken.
The drop shots he’d been relying on stopped working, and soon after, so did everything else. By the middle of the second set, Federer was irritated—at one of the ball kids for jumping up too soon; at the chair umpire for not speaking loudly enough; at Hawk-Eye for confirming a Zverev ace. By the end of the set, Federer had trouble finding the court with either of his ground strokes.
Fortunately for Federer, Zverev gave him a boost in the opening game of the third set when he double faulted to go down 0-30. With that shot, Zverev’s momentum came to a screeching halt, and normal order was finally restored. Federer went on the attack, broke serve, and broke again from 40-0 down when Zverev lost control of his forehand one more time. In a final twist, it was the older player in this two hour and 12 minute match who was stronger down the stretch.
Statistically, one pair of numbers stood out: Zverev’s nine forehand winners and 23 forehand errors. He’ll need to fix that if he hopes to beat Jack Sock on Thursday and advance to the semis. As for Federer, who has always been at his best against the best, he’s into his 14th semifinal in his 15th ATP Finals appearance. Was his mid-match slump today a sign of possible miscues to come? Or was it a wake-up call that will help him on his march to a seventh ATP Finals title? I’m thinking the latter.