By Jane Voigt
The start of his match was miserable. The end brought a tear to his eyes. Roger Federer had won his way to the semifinals of the ATP World Tour Finals for the 11th time in 12 years, by defeating Juan Martin del Potro.
“It’s always crazy nice playing in front of you guys, so thank you,” a grateful Federer told the 17,500 fans on hand in London’s O2 Arena. He later added that fan support made him “willing to take risks, move forward, go for shots even if unforced errors piled up.”
With this victory comes an uptick in Federer’s year-ending ranking. He will move past Tomas Berdych and end the year at No. 5. It’s the first time since 2002 that Federer will not be ranked in the top four.
But from his performance today, Federer’s return to that Big Four cannot be ruled out for 2014.
This was the third time these men had met in the last two weeks. Del Potro defeated Federer in the finals at Basel, his home town; and, Federer defeated Del Potro in the semifinals in Paris. Those two tournaments, which were played on quicker surfaces, gave Federer a much-needed boost in confidence this week.
“Confidence comes from your movement,” Federer said in his post-match press conference. “If you’re moving well you feel as if you can reach every ball.”
Federer’s confidence and consistency was totally out the window at the beginning of the match. In the first, he went down two breaks. At the start of sets two and three he went down a break again, as if he’d dragged every fan worldwide into a replay of “Groundhog Day.”
The dissonant rhythm of the match made for great drama, but wore on a usually level-headed Federer. He was up 40-0 in one game, yet lost it. His serves went off, too. He could not place them.
His frustration came to a boil in the second set, as he went on a tirade in what sounded like Swiss German, which extended almost thirty seconds. His anger fueled a turnaround. He won four consecutive games at love. Then, his performance dipped. Neither man could take advantage of the downturns.
In the middle of the final set both men played at a high level. Federer broke through at 5-games all and won the match, 46 76(2) 75.
“I’m disappointed about the match today,” Del Potro said. “I had two chances to break him, but he played well. He deserved to come back both sets.”
“Juan Martin has done well this whole season,” Federer said. “It’s a pleasure playing against him. But, unfortunately, one guy has to win.”
Federer’s inconsistency is the story for 2013. Most of his results were due to a back injury, which picked at his mind enough to crumble his confidence and, of course, his game. Here is one set of statistics that shows the damage that can be attributed to an injury and aging.
Number of times Roger Federer has been broken in the first three games of a deciding set since 2002. (TennisTV)
2008 – 61%
2009 – 66%
2010 – 68%
2011 – 75%
2012 – 80%
2013 – 100%
Federer last win over a top-ten player, after having lost the first set, came against Del Potro in the semifinals at the 2012 Olympics, which was played at Wimbledon.
Paul Annacone, Federer’s former coach and guest commentator for Tennis Channel today, summed up the match nicely. “[He did a] great job to get through a brutal, brutal match.”
As a reward, Federer will play Rafael Nadal tomorrow in one semifinal. This will be their 32nd meeting. The head-to-head is lopsided 21-10. However, at the World Tour Finals Federer has dominated Nadal, 4-0.
“It’s something to look forward to,” Roger said, when asked the semifinal. “I’ll try to make his life a bit difficult tomorrow, so we’ll see what happens. Maybe full swinging is what I need to do a little more. He’s going to do exactly what he needs.”
Del Potro told the Spanish press that the match depended more on Roger than on Rafa.
Novak Djokovic and Stanislaus Wawrinka will play the second semifinal tomorrow, during the ‘knock-out’ phase of the tournament.
Who ever would have predicted that two of the four semifinalists were hail from the small country of Switzerland?
“I don’t know if I’m more excited that I won today or we’re both in the semifinals,” Federer told the media.
Both semifinal matches will be broadcast by ESPN2. Nadal and Federer will play first, at 2 p.m., EST. Djokovic and Wawrinka are scheduled at 8 p.m.