LONDON — You have to respect how much Roger Federer cherishes titles. The 30-year-old Swiss relished his 70th, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-3 at the ATP World Tour Finals on Sunday, as much as his first. The match had a little bit of everything, summing up why you can never count out Federer and why it’s risky to bet on him.
Federer set a record with his sixth title at the year-end championships. “It’s an amazing feeling,” Federer said of breaking the mark he had shared with Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl. “I know it’s one of my greatest accomplishments.”
Getting there wasn’t as smooth as Federer would have liked. Through much of the first set, Tsonga seemed to be outplaying him. The Frenchman was pushing Federer’s service games to 30 and deuce, while Federer didn’t win more than a point on Tsonga’s serve until the eighth game. From there, Federer did what he seems preternaturally capable of doing: Hang on serve early, only to break late in the set and serve out the set.
“I thought Jo played well,” Federer said after beating Tsonga for the second time this week and third time this month. “Could I have won it easier? I guess. I had it in my hands. I had a chance to go a double break in the second. I had chances to serve it out. I had chances in the tiebreaker. Yeah, [winning it more easily] wasn’t meant to be.”
The second set saw Federer’s glitchy side, the side that has prevented him from making significant headway this season. His last two seasons have been defined by an inability to convert match points, and he did it again here. Federer was ahead 5-2 in the tiebreak (after being broken while serving for the championship), only to squander the lead, a match point on his own serve and the set on a wickedly monstrous return winner from Tsonga that sparked memories of Novak Djokovic’s “Forehand Heard ‘Round the World” at the U.S. Open.
But perhaps the freshness that comes from taking six weeks off after his devastating U.S. Open loss served Federer well. This time, instead of focusing on his missed opportunity, Federer stayed steady in the third set until his moment arrived to break Tsonga, once again in the eighth game, to get an opportunity to serve out the match. This time, Federer would not be denied, holding at love to clinch the title and add a number of milestones:
• Record-breaking sixth title at the year-end championships.
• Ties Lendl for the most match wins at the year-end championships with 39.
• Oldest player to win the title, eclipsing Ilie Nastase.
• Finishes the year 17-0 after the U.S. Open, including 5-0 in this event.
He’s compiled a career that puts him in pole position to be the greatest tennis player of the Open Era, if not of all time. But don’t tell him that. Asked if he feels like the best player in the world right now, Federer responded, “No, I mean, who cares. For me, it was the strongest finish [to a year] I’ve ever had in my career, which I’m very proud of.”
The win makes for an interesting story going into 2012, which is shockingly only a little more than a month away. Federer admitted the importance of winning majors.
“Sure, to win Grand Slams would be nice,” he said. “I’ve missed out on a few occasions now this year, and maybe also some last year. So I feel like it might be around the corner. Maybe not.”
With Federer’s late surge, he’s certainly riding a wave of confidence, but health variables for the top guys will play a big factor in 2012.
A strong push through London is a nice way to wrap up the season. His destruction of Rafael Nadal (regardless of the Spaniard’s form) spoke volumes for his performance level and confidence. Had he not notched that win in the way he did, it would be easy to write off his fall run as picking off the low-hanging fruit. But to hold his nerve against Rafa and to rebound from a disappointing second-set tiebreak to fend off Tsonga suggests that Federer is feeling quite good about himself.
Be afraid, 2012. Be very afraid.