Roger Federer wins first Shanghai title to keep in race for year-end No1

Roger Federer beats Gilles Simon to win his first Shanghai Masters title

It did not matter a jot that Roger Federer believed he had played some of his best tennis of the year to beat world No1 Novak Djokovic and reach his fifth Masters final of the year.

It mattered not that he had won more matches, against more top-10 players, than anyone else this season, that he was now in his fifth Masters final of the year, and that his fitness and confidence were sky-high.

And it mattered not that he had a 4-2 advantage over the No29-ranked Gilles Simon, for he knew not only that the Frenchman was playing well but that he had caused him problems before: “When he’s confident like this, he also feels everything he’s doing is working, then it’s hard to play him.”

For that lowly ranking belied the true quality of Simon, a former world No6 who had played at the year-end Masters Cup in 2008—and beaten Federer—on this very Shanghai court. The Swiss had, it’s true, been carrying a back problem, but Simon had also beaten him months before at the Toronto Masters.

Simon had also run Federer ragged at the 2011 Australian Open and 2013 Roland Garros, taking the Swiss to five sets on both occasions.

Simon’s ranking had yo-yoed since then as he contended with back, knee and hip injuries, but his tennis this year proved he was back to what he does so well: testing the best players with his resilience, speed, accuracy and astute tactics.

He beat Marin Cilic in five sets at the Australian Open, took Andy Murray to three sets in Acapulco, and very nearly wore down Rafael Nadal on Rome’s clay in a 199-minute marathon. He was a set up against Djokovic in Cincinnati, beat David Ferrer at the US Open before taking eventual champion Cilic to five sets. And his wins this week over the No4 seed Stan Wawrinka and No6 seed Tomas Berdych had already guaranteed his return inside the top 20.

Federer knew what to expect: “He’s not going to blow me off the court. He’s going to hit a lot of balls, play with tactics like we know he can… He presents an interesting challenge. He’s a different type of guy. He absorbs very well. He anticipates very well.”

A new string to the Simon bow was also more aggressive first-strike returns and the occasional net-foray—a tactic that would surely be deployed in an attempt to hold off the Federer net-assault.

Sure enough, Simon made the first strike, an immediate break of Federer’s serve: no mean feat against the man who faced only one break point against Djokovic.

Simon was already timing his shots impeccably, and calmly fired a winning pass off the Federer serve. Not content with that, he held serve with ease, 2-0.

Federer, in contrast was mistiming the ball—perhaps because he was the player who had turned from a night-time semi to a day-time final. He did not make a net play until closing out the third game and did not win a point at the net against serve until the fourth, even though Simon was offering up a lot of second serves.

The Frenchman maintained his advantage until serving for the set, but then faced two break points. With precision timing, Federer attacked to grab the game, held, and took the lead for the first time.

Federer was now adjusting his tactics, patiently working through chess-like baseline rallies with Simon. He won the first point of the next game after 31 shots, had two more break points, but Simon was also willing to adjust. A serve-and-volley winner, an ace, and he took the set to their first-ever tie-break.

It became edge-of-the-seat stuff, with both mixing it up, trying to outfox the other. First Federer got the lead with a volley winner and a dying drop-shot. Then Simon struck with a down-the-line backhand winner to take three points in a row for set point.

But Federer returned to his favourite game to counter with three straight points, the last his own backhand winner down the line, for the set, 7-6(6).

The statistics made fascinating reading: there was nothing in it on winners, but Federer led Simon 18-14 on errors—and that unusual imbalance would last throughout the match: more errors than winners for both men, and considerably more errors by Federer than Simon.

Not that it looked, for a time, as though the match would even go to a second set as Simon disappeared off court for medical attention. But he returned, and showed little sign of giving way even against a couple of glorious winners from Federer—first a drop shot, now an angled cross-court backhand—that brought up break points in the third game.

Simon resisted again in the seventh, and again at 5-5 despite a heavy fall. A lob winner rattled Federer, and Simon suddenly had two set points, only to fire both chances just out. It would be another tie-break and, as in the first, Federer stepped up the attack to race to victory, 7-6(2).

The Swiss champion roared his delight, threw back his head, and lifted his arms aloft as though embracing the stadium that had finally yielded his first Shanghai Masters title. This city has featured strongly in his career—he won the Masters Cup here in 2006 and 2007. But the tournament voted by players as their favourite Masters 1000 ever since it took on that status in 2009 had eluded him. This meant a lot.

“I think it’s been an unbelievable week. I got very, very lucky to come through the first round, so I know what a privilege it is to be here today. I couldn’t be more happy. It’s very much a dream for me to win Shanghai this year.”

The win takes Federer to his 23 Masters titles, a tour-leading 61 match-wins this season, and one step closer to his 1,000th career win. He needs just 16 more, but even in the form Federer has shown this season, it would be a mighty task to pull that off in 2014.

In short, he would have to ‘do a Djokovic’ and win four titles back to back, including the ATP World Tour Finals. But should he pull off the near impossible, it could set up the most pitch-perfect finish to a season he has ever had.

Win No16 could come during the final of the Davis Cup, the one big trophy he has yet to claim. And it is even possible that he could play that singular match as world No1.

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