LONDON — The ATP’s season-ending event will come down to No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Roger Federer in the finale of the World Tour Finals on Monday.
Djokovic outlasted Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in Sunday’s first semifinal, while Federer ended Andy Murray’s bid for his first title at this event with a 7-6 (5), 6-2 victory. As a result, Djokovic will look to cap his No. 1 season with his second year-end title (he won the Tour Finals in Shanghai in 2008), while Federer will be going for his third straight title here and seventh overall.
Monday will bring one last showdown between Djokovic and Federer, their fifth clash of the year and 29th all time. The two have split four meetings in 2012, with Djokovic taking two on clay (Rome, the French Open) and Federer capitalizing on the quick surfaces at Wimbledon and Cincinnati. Their matches have gone true to form in a rivalry that has been relatively even (Federer leads 16-12) and has turned on court speed and whoever was hotter at the time.
So what does that mean for Monday’s final? Both men won semifinals in which they sputtered early only to turn things around and run away. Djokovic weathered a fantastic first set from Del Potro (the Argentine joked that the semifinals included the Big Three and “a big guy”), who put on a show that recalled his 2009 Slam-winning ways, and tightened up his game just in time to take Del Potro’s long and lanky legs out of the match. It was a classic display from Djokovic, who siphoned off any belief Del Potro had with every break point saved and impossible get gotten. By the time the third set rolled around, Del Potro was barely moving to cover the line and challenging balls that were two feet out just in hopes of grabbing some air.
As for Federer, he fell behind an early break and struggled to hang in on his service games. And then the Swiss seemed to recall that he was playing indoors — remember that Wimbledon final? — and got the break back before outplaying Murray in the first-set tiebreaker. From there, with 17,000-plus fans supporting him — yes, the crowd was firmly behind the Swiss import rather than its own Olympic double medalist — Federer broke it open by converting both his second-set break points and winning 16-of-18 service points in the set.
Neither Djokovic nor Federer has played his best throughout the week, but like the savvy pros that they are, they’ve played well enough to win, confident that their best will come later. Given the surface and the crowd support — if you thought they were loud when Federer played Murray, wait until he faces Djokovic — it’s hard to bet against Federer here. He’s a different player when he’s under a roof — he’s 3-1 against Djokovic indoors — and he has a chance to become the first player to win three consecutive World Tour Finals since Ivan Lendl in 1987. I think Federer will step it up.
A few additional thoughts as we head into the last match of the ATP season:
• The Player of the Year debate: My colleagues Bruce Jenkins and Jon Wertheim are backing Murray for ATP Player of the Year, and I do understand the argument. Though he was a bit up and down, Murray’s season will be remembered for his Slam breakthrough and becoming the only man to do the Olympics-U.S. Open double. In many ways, Murray defined 2012. His trajectory from losing that close Australian Open semifinal to Djokovic, to being reduced to tears by Federer at Wimbledon, to leaping in triumph as he wore the Union Jack on his chest at the Olympics, to squatting in relief when he finally won that major in New York — those are the lasting images of the year.
But it’s just too fluffy for me. I like numbers. I’m not particularly good with them — you know this if you follow me on Twitter — but I do like the ability to quantify and rank success. Djokovic won Australia, made the finals of the French Open and U.S. Open, won five titles (with a chance for a sixth) and reached the semifinals or better at 15 of 17 tournaments. He’ll finish the year No. 1.
But if Federer wins Monday, I’m inclined to back him as Player of the Year. A victory would give him his seventh title of the year, matching David Ferrer for the tour lead. He also won Wimbledon and an Olympic silver medal and returned to No. 1 after a two-year absence, all at the over-the-hill ages of 30 and 31. We’re arguing about the slightest of margins here, but if Federer captures his seventh year-end title, I put him ahead by a whisker.
• Andy Murray? More like Anti-Murray: The last time I was in London, I was boarding a plane and being inundated by newspaper cover after newspaper cover with pictures of a tearful Murray after his defeat to Federer in the Wimbledon final, with some sort of “He lost the match but won over the heart of a nation” sentiment. Fickle hearts, these Brits.
Look, it’s never a shock to hear a pro-Federer crowd, not even here in Britain. The crowd for the Wimbledon final was about 60-40 for Federer, even after Murray took the first set and looked like he might actually have a shot to win the thing. But to hear this British (English?) crowd so anti-Murray was something else. They applauded his unforced errors, booed when he changed rackets and weren’t exactly coming out of their seats to give him an ovation when he walked off the court for the last time at the end of his dream season. Again, completely understandable to go nuts and cheer for your favorite player regardless of national interests — and really, isn’t that what makes it fun to be a tennis fan? But actively rooting against your own guy? Brutal.
• Del Potro is on the brink … of something: Del Potro remains the only man outside of the Big Four to win a major in forever. OK, fine, since Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open, which feels like forever ago. He was relatively quiet through the first part of 2012, but his year seemed to change at Roland Garros, where he built a two-set lead on Federer in the quarterfinals before losing in five sets. The Argentine says that match made him believe that he could once again compete with the best, and sure enough he hung with Federer again in the Olympic semifinals, losing 3-6, 7-6 (5), 19-17. Fast-forward a few months and there was the Argentine, who had gone 0-6 against Federer this season, nipping the Swiss in the final of his hometown tournament in Basel, and then he beat him again indoors this week, once again in three sets.
His serve and forehand have finally started to click during the last few months of the season, and the shot that breaks open rallies for him — his forehand down the line — is slowly getting more consistent. That’s the shot to look out for when the tour resumes in Australia in January. If that shot is clicking, 2013 is going to look a lot like 2009. I’m already looking forward to it.