LONDON – With three Grand Slam titles, it's been Rafael Nadal's year. But the ATP World Tour Finals, unquestionably, was Roger Federer's tournament.
From first to last, all through round-robin play against the best players in the world, the Swiss maestro dominated these ATP World Finals with the brand of tennis that has brought him 16 Slams, and fittingly, he ended up beating his greatest rival 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
This was the 22nd meeting between two of the finest players the game has ever seen but, interestingly, only the third indoors. Federer had won the previous two in straight sets -- at the semifinal stage of the Finals in Shanghai in 2006 and 2007 -- so there was no question he went into this match as the favorite, no matter how Nadal had dominated elsewhere. Overall, Nadal now leads 14-8.
The low bounce of an indoor court does not favor the Spaniard's style, but it says much for the technical improvement that he keeps layering onto his game that he was able to reach the final of this year-end event for the first time and beat an opponent playing as well as Andy Murray in the semifinals.
But Nadal expended a lot of energy in that match -- certainly a great deal more than Federer, who had not lost a set all week, did against Novak Djokovic -- and if he felt a little stiff at the start, Federer didn't help him by coming fast out of the traps.
The first set was a whirlwind of flashing winners as Federer unleashed every shot in his armory, particularly on the backhand side as he scored again and again with cross-court winners. But it was with his first serve that he controlled the set, winning every point when he got his first serve in court. Despite a drop off in accuracy in the second set, Federer ended up winning 36 of 39 first serves. That leaves an opponent precious little room to maneuver.
It was to Nadal's credit that he fought back in the second, capitalizing on the one bad service game Federer produced to grab a 3-1 lead and then putting the pressure back on the Swiss by standing up on his baseline during rallies -- something he would have been reluctant to do a couple of years ago.
Federer, however, was unshaken. Rediscovering the fluency of the first set, he immediately increased the tempo in the third and forced the break he was seeking in the fourth game. Although down 40-15, Federer counterattacked with a great approach shot and beautifully cut backhand volley that stopped dead as it hit the court. Having gotten to deuce, he was handed the next point by a Nadal forehand error and then he was in again, driving straight up the middle to deny Rafa an angle and commanding the net as the world's No. 1 went for the line and missed.
The crowd was cheering every point, seemingly equally divided between these two highly popular performers and there were banners and flags everywhere. The red and yellow of Spain was dotted around the 17,500 crowd while one banner proclaimed, "Namibia Loves Roger," and another, "Greetings from Lugano." Celebrities were present all week, and spotted Sunday were Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood; Thierry Henry, back from his stint with the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer; American actor Kevin Spacey, who runs the Old Vic Theatre in London; and London mayor Boris Johnson, who likely was thrilled with the commercial success of this sporting event at the 02 Arena.
This tournament presents the best in the world in both singles and doubles, and the London crowd will come to see anything that good. They were supportive of the doubles, too, and were there to cheer Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, who won the title by beating Max Mirnyi and Mahesh Bhupathi 7-6, 6-4. The winners represented Canada and Serbia; the runners-up, Belarus and India. Add Switzerland and Spain, and you had players from six nations in two matches on finals day. Tough to imagine a more international event.
Afterward, Federer was upbeat about his strong finish to the year.
"Winning this title for the fifth time in three different places -- Houston, Shanghai and London -- is obviously fantastic for me," he said. "I am really thrilled to have finished the season in style. Saving the best until last makes it extra special."
Federer paid tribute to Paul Annacone, the American coach he hired midseason.
"I had to regain some confidence after a disappointing clay- and grass-court season when I had been playing a little passive and Paul helped in this regard," Federer said. "But I am pleased I made the right decisions at the end, playing five tournaments in seven weeks and winning three. So I am quite exhausted, but who cares? I won't remember that in 20 years."
Federer won $1.6 million for going through the week unbeaten, but "the memories will be much greater than all the money I won," he said.
Federer thought the way he hit his backhand was important against Nadal because "left-handers find it easier to play against," but Rafa himself just thought his rival "played unbelievable."
Asked about being tired after his three-hour, 11-minute marathon against Murray, Nadal replied, "I think it's not the right moment to talk about that. I'm not going to say I lost the match because I was tired. I feel I lost because I played against a very good Roger Federer on one of his favorite surfaces. And when he's playing like this, it's very difficult to stop him, no?"
Next stop, Australia and a rivalry that promises to run and run.