Young Austrian Dominic Thiem produced some of his best tennis of the week to beat Kei Nishikori in straight sets just a fortnight after losing in straights to the Japanese man at his home tournament of Vienna.
With Nishikori downed, Federer knew that if he won just a single set—indeed just six games overall—he would qualify for the semi-finals, albeit in second place, though that offered the undesirable prospect of playing Novak Djokovic come Saturday.
However, if Federer beat the tall South African, he would top the group: quite a result after his poor showing in his opening match here against Nishikori. But the Swiss had changed his routine since then.
He admitted, in a gloomy first press conference:
“Practice has been a bit all over the place. Practised in Queen’s, practised on the outside courts here, then centre as well. So it’s not always exactly the same conditions.”
So he cancelled practice at Queen’s the next day, after agreeing with his team that he was better to clear his head, spend time away from the court with his family, and come back fresh for his Thiem match. Instead of his usual 20-minute pre-match warm-up he did 40 minutes, with practice points and games. As he said after the subsequent win:
“And I will do the same again tomorrow because it worked.”
Sure enough, come the crucial third match against the top man in the group, Kevin Anderson, it was the same—a head down, no-nonsense 45 minutes on centre court right up to the start of the doubles match of the night.
He needed to be on his game, because Anderson had played better than anyone in the group, despite being the debutant at the age of 32. It was no fluke. After all, he had made the final at Wimbledon to hit a new career-high of No5: and he had done it the hard way with back-to-back comeback five-setters over Federer and then John Isner, almost 11 hours of tennis.
His two wins at the O2 took him to a career-best 47 match-wins, and now he could not fail to reach the semis. All that was at stake was whether he would finish top of the group or second.
The match was far from a foregone conclusion for the Swiss. Yes, he had won their first four matches up to and including 2015, but come Wimbledon this year, Federer had let slip a big lead in the quarter-finals, missing out on a match point in the third set, to lose 13-11 in the fifth after four hours and 13 minutes.
Federer insisted that the tough loss would not prey on his mind:
“I think I have enough things to focus on from my own side, from my own game, to make sure I play a good match against him.”
But he had not been at his clinical best for much of the last six months as the pressure cranked up towards his 100th title.
He did get No99 in Basel, and played well in losing a long three-setter to Djokovic in the Paris Masters. However, until this week, he had never lost in straight sets in a round-robin match at the ATP Finals, and that in 15 previous appearances, 45 previous matches. He had also failed to make it beyond the knock-out stage only once in 16 appearances, and that was due to injury in Shanghai in 2008.
Could the 37-year-old now make it 15 semis? And could he keep alive his hopes of a 100th title on one of the tour’s most prestigious stages?
He did more than that. He completely turned around the scenarios to end the night at the top of his group.
He was more consistent in this match than the previous two, and while Anderson stayed with him, serving well, in the initial games, it was Federer who upped the attack in the seventh game, getting the break to love courtesy of two double faults.
Anderson stayed aggressive, especially on return of serve, and broke straight back, but Anderson was clearly feeling the pressure: His serving was well below 60 percent, and Federer kept changing his return position to break Anderson’s rhythm. The Swiss raced to the net on break point for a volley winner, and would now try to serve it out again.
It was very edgy: He faced 0-40 but held off the challenge, finding an ace to deuce, and closed the set, 6-4.
That was enough to confirm his place in the semis, and the crowd knew it. The roar was deafening. And it seemed to take the tension out of Federer’s game, too.
Again, he got the first break in the seventh game of the second set with a teasing sliced backhand, and did not make a similar mistake this time round. He followed it with a statement hold to love with two serve and volley plays.
Federer now piled on the pressure and Anderson could not stem the attack. The Swiss broke, 6-3, to take top spot in his group, leaving Anderson the likely the prospect of Djokovic in the semis—though who would join him there would not be determine for 24 hours.
Federer had few expectations, especially of winning his 100th come Sunday:
“I’m still not thinking of the number 100. I won’t let that get in my head: Make me go crazy because it should be something I’m excited about and not something I should feel extra pressure. As long as I think Novak is in the draw anyhow, he’s playing so good again, it’s never going to be easy… I think it’s just going to be hard to finish it.
“I’m happy I gave myself the opportunity. I’m happy that I’m raising my level of play throughout this week. This is what I hope to do. Yeah, it’s exciting to be in this situation now, of course, no doubt.”
And yes, he will take the day off again tomorrow:
“For me this week, I’m doing it this way. It’s one of the first times I’ve done it like that. I’m happy it’s paying off so far. But I got to be very, very focused the moment I step on court for the practice, the warm-up. I think that’s key.”
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge