Nitto ATP Finals: Federer wins battle of the ages over Zverev to reach 14th semi-final

World No2 Roger Federer secures his place in ATP Finals last four at The 02 in London

World No2 Roger Federer Photo: Marianne Bevis

So all eight men had displayed their wares. Now, on Day 3, it was beginning to get a little serious for some of them: the four losers.

One of those losers, Rafael Nadal, would of course play no further part, his place taken by the fresh, and fresh-faced Pablo Carreno Busta, who right up until the last day of qualification for London, had good reason to think he may make the top-eight cut in his own right.

Jack Sock’s title run at the Paris Masters knocked him into ninth place, but he would still have his moment in the sun come Wednesday, courtesy of his compatriot’s misfortune.

But what of the other opening-match losers who were still in contention at the O2? Although the writing was on the wall, it did still remain in a very light script, for the permutations surrounding the notorious round-robin format are many and varied. Indeed there are even scenarios where a player with a single match-win against his three opponents could still make the cut.

But a few options were becoming clearer, particularly as Roger Federer, top seed in the Boris Becker Group, was the only one of the four to win his opener in straight sets. Should he win his second match in the same way, he was into the semi-finals. If he won in three sets, and the man he beat in his opener, Jack Sock, beat the other group loser, Marin Cilic, Federer would also qualify.

But all that remained hypothetical until Federer stood across the net from the other winner in this group, the impressive Alexander Zverev. And he had his own qualifying scenario to relish: If he beat Federer, and Cilic beat Sock, the 20-year-old German, who qualified third for his debut participation in the World Tour Finals, would confirm his semi-final place.

And it really was no foregone conclusion that the 36-year-old Federer would better the man so much younger that himself that Zverev could have played in the #NextGen Finals in Milan. Except that the 6ft 6in German proved simply too good for that.

Indeed, after Federer and Nadal, he had been one of the most prolific titles winners of 2017, five from six finals. And among that tally were two Masters, one on Rome’s clay, another on Montreal’s hard courts. Since the summer of 2016, he had also notched up an 11-6 record over top-10 opposition, and two of those wins were over Federer.

Arguably, his two wins needed a small asterisk alongside them. In Halle last year, Federer was still fighting for fitness after his earlier knee surgery, and this year in Montreal, he had a recurrence of the back problem that has surfaced intermittently through his career.

But there is no denying the German’s quality and power, and Zverev has one more vital quality: confidence. He was already mature beyond his years when he started his swift rise at the age of 18 early last year, fluent in three languages, and perfectly at ease with his image as one of the stars of the future. He began 2016 ranked 85, and won his first title from three finals on the way to No20 by the end of the year.

And that confidence exudes from him. In his first match in his first World Tour Finals, Zverev beat Cilic in three sets, and after admitting that Federer is the favourite in his group, the German was quick to revise the 2-2 tally of tour matches he had played against the Swiss. He also, he mentioned, played him in Hopman Cup, and while Federer was only just back from a six-month absence, Zverev bettered him in three tie-breaks.

So the history of Federer and this particular tournament would probably not faze this young player, but make no mistake: the Swiss has always felt at home here, loves playing in London, and made no secret after winning the Shanghai Masters that he wanted to end the year with this title.

His record here, as it is in so many places, is formidable: Most titles, six, from most finals, 10; Most years qualified, 15; all-time match wins in the tournament, 53-12.

His record this year, after a six-month gap to heal knee and back, has made headlines: Two Majors, three Masters, his 1,100 win at Halle and his 95th in Basel, a rise from No17 to No2, even with no clay matches all year, and 11-1 against top-10 opposition, a tour-leading seven title.

That lone top-10 loss was, it so happens, to Zverev.

The seriousness with which both were treating this latest encounter was writ large in a brief half-hour on Centre Court, a warm-up squeezed in between the late-finishing Cilic-Sock match and the start of the evening session.

Zverev practised first, with coach Juan Carlos Ferrero—and then sat for a while to watch Federer go through his paces against Sam Querrey. The American, the second alternate in London this year, happens to be 6ft 6in, with a big serve and baseline game: Pretty useful preparation for Federer.

So just how would this battle of the generations unfold on one of the biggest stages in tennis? Well it was as gripping as anyone anticipated, a match of switching fortunes and scores. Federer immediately faced 0-40 in the first game, only to reel off seven straight points to hold and go 0-30 on Zverev’s serve. But in the event there was not a break in the set, after the German fought off a set point at 5-6 to take it to a tie-break.

That proved to be as unpredictable as the entire match, with Zverev taking a 4-0 lead, before Federer won another five points on the bounce. Zverev worked a set point, but again Federer nabbed three straight points to edge it, 7-6(6).

When Federer made a quick opening break in the second set and held to love, it looked as though there would be a swift conclusion, but not so. His first serve went missing, and had to save two break points with a backhand pass then an ace, but he threw in a couple of rash drop shots and Zverev was not fooled twice. He made the pass and got the break back, and began to look the more solid and confident player as Federer barked his disgust with himself.

Sure enough the balance was eventually reflected in the score, Zverev’s deep and flat strikes ran Federer ragged and got the break for the set, 7-5.

But now the younger player began to look weary and the errors started to follow. Federer began to attack more vigorously, and it paid off with a break in third game. Zverev let a 40-0 lead slip in the fifth game as Federer picked off point after point to break again with two hours on the clock. Zverev found one last hurrah, a break point and four deuces, but Federer survived, 5-1, and broke the youngster for the match, 6-1.

It was far from Federer’s best, though there were dazzling moments, but he would not be satisfied with 38 errors to 26 winners. He admitted that he had been forced to play less freely than he prefers:

“I wish I could have played a bit more freely. I was playing a lot of defence, trying to keep the ball in play. That’s something I haven’t done so much this season because I’ve always, been on the accelerator, trying to install my pressure plays, trying to take charge.

“But today was difficult. Still early days in the tournament. It was nice to be able to show maybe that quality of mine, that I can dig out these matches, these points time and time again, stay mentally tough. In the third I started to play better. It was a tough match from the beginning till the end.”

However there was one thing he could be very happy about: Federer is assured of the semis again this year, his 14th time in 15 appearances at the tournament.

And in the other match? Well the 25-year-old Sock beat Cilic 5-7, 6-2, 7-6(4) to become the first American singles player to win at a season finale in 10 years, and keep his hopes alive for that second spot.

Federer will still want to beat Cilic, for the top of his pool will play the second in the other pool. Those permutations would have to wait for later this week. For now, Federer leads the charge—as he has done so many time before.

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