ATP World Tour Finals 2014: Federer survives 4 match points in pulsating Wawrinka battle
Roger Federer beats Stan Wawrinka in three sets to set up an ATP World Tour Finals showdown with Novak Djokovic
Stan Wawrinka began the year in, for him, a unique position. He became the top ranked Swiss player ahead of long-standing friend and colleague, Roger Federer, for the first time in their long careers.
At the age of 28, the younger Swiss reached a career-high No3 having qualified for the World Tour Finals for the first time in 2013 and reached his first Grand Slam semi-final three months earlier. And it proved to be no flash in the pan.
Wawrinka became that rare beast, a man not named Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray, to have a Major title to his name: He stormed to the Australian Open, beating Djokovic and Nadal in the process. And he went on to win his first Masters in Monte Carlo, for good measure beating Federer himself in the final.
In that heady 12 months, he has not dropped outside the top four, qualifying for the World Tour Finals ranked at four—seeded No3—and on target to end the year in the top four as well.
But it did not take long for Federer to surge back from a 2013 season blighted by back injury and unexpected losses. A new racket, new coach and new fitness saw him reach the finals not just of Monte Carlo but of Wimbledon, Indian Wells and Toronto, and win five titles, including the Cincinnati and Shanghai Masters.
Wawrinka was the No2 Swiss again, but their respective rankings still seem not uppermost for either man. After all, these two have joined forces to win Olympic doubles gold, and have combined to take Switzerland to the Davis Cup final next week.
And Wawrinka rarely loses a chance to tell the assembled media that Federer is the best player ever, while Federer was content, last autumn, to miss out on the World Tour Finals if it meant Wawrinka could qualify. In the event, both qualified—and both went out in the semi-finals.
This year, one would make the final, for the draw and their results ensured that Federer, top of Group B, would face Wawrinka, second in Group A, in the semis.
The two had not played one another since Wimbledon—a 14th victory to Federer in their 16 meetings—though that had been far from one-sided. Indeed their three previous matches, all in Masters, all went the distance.
The unknown in London was the form that each would bring to the match. Federer had not dropped a set—indeed only 13 games—through the round robins, while Wawrinka won one match with ease, lost the second just as convincingly and pulled the third out as a three-setter. Which Wawrinka would come to this match?
They had shaken hands on the same court three hours before as each warmed up for the contest. At 8pm, they did the same in front of an arena scarlet with Swiss flags. But friendship would take a back seat for almost three hours in the longest, closest and most intense match of the tournament.
Wawrinka was on fire from the off, just like the man who won the Australian Open. He fired aces at 135mph, and the attacking transitions he had been practising a couple of hours before were immediately brought into play.
He broke to lead 3-1 and broke again for 5-2. Federer struggled to find his first serves, but attacked the Wawrinka serve to get one break back. However, despite some rowdy shouting from the crowd that got under Wawrinka’s skin, he served out the set 6-4. He had won 10-10 first serve points.
The second set was tighter still, very tight, and Federer had two chances to break in the sixth game, but again Wawrinka aced. Both fought off several deuces, but it stayed on serve and looked destined for a tie-break: They now had 51 points each. But a love hold by Federer was followed by a love break of Wawrinka, who netted two volleys in a row, and the match was level, 7-5.
That was just the appetizer. The second set had last almost an hour, the third would take a pulsating 77 minutes.
Federer opened with a poor service game for an immediate break, and began an argument with the umpire about a challenge, or lack of it. He was clearly distracted, and uncharacteristically irritated by everything around him for several games.
A net cord deprived him of a break point in the fourth game, a ball kid misunderstood him in the next, and he missed three break chances in the eighth game. And all the while, the crowd was reaching fever pitch.
The turning point finally came as Wawrinka served for the match, 5-4. Federer faced three match points but defended as though his life depended on it, and attacking at every opportunity. It paid off on his third break point.
Not done, Wawrinka had two chances to break again, and again Federer resisted, and led for the first time since the very first game of the match, 6-5.
This one would go to a tie-break, and is so often the case, it brought out the best in Federer, who took the early lead with two cracking passing shots for 4-2. But Wawrinka, calm to the end, levelled 5-5, and a dreadful netted backhand from Federer gave his friend/foe another match point.
Once more Federer survived and a volley winner gave the No2 seed his first match point… and he needed no more, touching a drop volley winner to take set and match, 7-6(6).
It was not a jubilant celebration: Federer looked too tired, relieved and sorry for Wawrinka for that. They embraced, but this had been a battle royal, with no quarter given by either.
It keeps alive Federer’s hopes of a seventh title here, but in rather too few hours for his liking, he will have to face Novak Djokovic for a 37th time—and if this match was a thriller, the rivalry between the top two seeds has produced some of the best matches of the last few years.
The final, though, will take Federer’s tally of matches this year to 84, more than at any time since his remarkable 2006, when he won 12 titles from 16 finals.
No wonder his defeated compatriot will brook no argument over who is the best player ever.