Federer wins royal seal of approval with Stockholm title
It was a royal occasion in more ways than one at the final of the Stockholm Open. Played to a capacity 5,000-plus crowd in Sweden’s Royal Tennis Hall, the climax of the tournament was attended by Crown Princess Victoria, and it was she who would present the silver globe of a trophy to the winner.
On court, too, the final boasted the closest to royalty that the tennis tour has to offer in the regal form of Roger Federer. Playing in Stockholm for the first time in 10 years, he appeared to be on a mission: to tick off as many new landmarks in his record-breaking career as possible.
By winning his first match, Federer became the only active player on the tour to reach 900 ATP matches. The first of those matches was played, as 16-year-old, the week after he was crowned Wimbledon Junior Champion 12 years ago.
In his second match, Federer won his 50th match of the year, to became only the fifth man in the Open era to win 50 matches in at least nine straight years.
Were he to win the Stockholm title, he would reach 64, and tie with Pete Sampras in fourth place on the Open era titles list. It would also mark the 18th different country in which he had won. From the United States to Europe, from Japan to Canada, from the Middle East to the China, Federer is the ultimate worldwide champion.
His progress in Stockholm, however, had been far from faultless. He was a set and a break down to Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, in a match riddled with unforced errors, before finding his attacking game to take the win.
Against Ivan Ljubicic in the semis, he also went a break down early on, and trailed right up to the moment Ljubicic served for the set. Federer assaulted the net, forced errors from his opponent, and broke back. Federer won the tiebreaker and then a more straightforward second set, 6-2.
And the same pattern seemed to unfold in the final against Florian Mayer. The German, in only his third tour final, had completed one of his best ever weeks in taking out world No5 Robin Soderling and No22 Feliciano Lopez.
Mayer may also have drawn some inspiration from Viktor Troicki who was at the same time on his way to a first ever ATP title in the Kremlin Cup. The Serbian sits just four places above Mayer in the rankings, at 43, and he had also performed giant-killing feats en route to the title, taking out No13 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No18 Marcos Baghdatis.
Mayer’s self-effacing character and, more importantly, his swinging, uninhibited, athletic brand of tennis ensured strong Swedish support, and he won an early break from Federer. Mayer’s combination of power and touch brought the best out of Federer, who responded with some of his most varied and fluid tennis of the week to break Mayer back.
Federer rode this momentum and to take control of the match, rushing the net, picking off touch volleys, and making overhead smashes with confidence. It turned out to be the top seed’s most intense performance of the tournament, and his most fleet-footed. On numerous occasions, he had to rush forward to retrieve a fading drop shot, but rarely did he fail to make a winner from the return.
Then with precision timing, just as he’d done against Ljubicic the night before, Federer broke the Mayer serve to take the first set 6-4, which enabled him to open the second set on his own serve.
Mayer continued to power both backhand and forehand ground shots to either wing, and throw in drops and a few aces for good measure. But Federer’s standard stayed high. In the sixth game, he found slightly more attack and angle, picked up a couple of drop shots with outright winners, and broke the German. He held his own serve to go up 5-2, and safely served out for a 6-3 win.
The nature of the award ceremony, from a charming and enthusiastic Princess Victoria, could not have been more appropriate. Mayer, a gentleman to his fingertips, thanked the crowd for their encouragement, before extending his hope that Federer would win back the No1 ranking “as soon as possible.” The crowd went into overdrive with a standing ovation that brought the proceedings to a standstill, and almost brought a tear to Federer’s eye.
So with his 64th Sampras-matching title duly won, Federer will head home for a few days’ break after reaching two consecutive finals in as many weeks -Shanghai and Stockholm. But then he has yet more business to attend to. His local tournament in Basel beckons, and it carries particular significance because Federer’s three-year winning streak there was brought to an end in the 2009 final by Novak Djokovic.
Federer, therefore, will be after revenge on his home turf. What’s more, if they meet in the finals again, it will be their fourth confrontation in consecutive tournaments. Theirs is becoming one of the key rivalries of the tour, and any meeting is certain to bring both high quality tennis and high tension to the court.
At this stage of the year, too, the 500 Basel points have great value because the No2 and No3 men in the world have twice swapped places in the rankings since the US Open. Federer now has his end-of-year ranking in view and would dearly love to guarantee the No2 spot to cap an eighth consecutive year in one of the top two places.
There is a still bigger prize up for grabs the week after Basel: the final Masters of the year in Paris.
Federer has already overhauled Andre Agassi’s record number of Masters match wins, which now stands at 221. However, he still equals Agassi’s tally of 17 Masters titles and needs one more to equal Rafael Nadal’s leading 18.
Paris would be a good place to do it, as that is the only Masters on the tour where Federer has yet to reach a final. To add a little more spice to the occasion, Djokovic is the title-holder there, too.
So there are incentives aplenty to keep Federer’s engine in turbo drive. But judging from his words in recent days, his desire to play and to win is undiminished.
Not only did he cheerfully consider a 1,000 matches to be well within his reach in the next two years, he also confirmed that the No1 ranking was also an itch that needed scratching: “It’s not that important to be two, three or four. For me, it’s either number one in the world or everything else.”
He can’t overtake Nadal before next summer, but after that?