Roger Federer powers past David Ferrer into London final
If there is an identity crisis in tennis, someone forgot to tell Roger Federer – although he probably did not need a toe-curling paeon of courtside praise on TV after beating David Ferrer to remind him of his place in the world's affections (tucked in there behind Nelson Mandela, apparently).
Of the leading eight players in the game who gathered in London over the past week for the final tournament of a debilitating season, only the pristine Swiss has resembled his old self, and on Saturday he reminded Ferrer that some things in life do not change by force of will alone.
Federer beat the determined Spaniard 7-5, 6-3 – his 12th win over him in 12 matches – to reach today's final of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Only Ivan Lendl with nine appearances, and Boris Becker (eight) have reached more title deciders in this tournament.
His match today against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – who beat Tomas Berdych 6-3, 7-5 – is also the 100th final of Federer's career and may be his 70th victory. If he does see off Tsonga he will have won the title six times, one more than the record he shares with Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl (only a fool would bet against him) he will secure a record sixth Tour Finals title and, on Monday, reclaim the No 3 world ranking that Andy Murray took from him briefly during his hat-trick tour of Asia. Victory would also place him equal sixth alongside Stefan Edberg on 806 career match wins. This is the cv of no ordinary athlete. Alarmingly for his peers, joyously for his fans, he thinks he is getting better.
"For me, it's only logical to improve," he said, "but you have to have the work ethic, to sleep, drink, live healthy as a tennis player, because no one else is running but ourselves. That makes it extremely difficult mentally. I have also been amazed myself how long I've been able to keep it up."
It was not a perfect Federer performance; few since his last major, the 2010 Australian Open, have been, although there have been sightings of the old boy, memorably in Paris and New York. But, after an uncertain start – 19 unforced errors in the first set gave Ferrer cruel, passing hope – he was too good over an hour and 25 minutes for the world No5.
Federer has emerged from a bruised pack, the oldest swinger in town at 30. Others have been less resilient. Talk of burnout may be boring, but it is an issue crystallised almost daily in Greenwich.
Janko Tipsarevic beat his friend Novak Djokovic for the first time on Friday, but reminded us this was not the same player who had won three slams in what he reckoned was the greatest single year in the sport's history; the real Rafael Nadal is somewhere in Mallorca, having sent his doppelganger to collapse in London; and Murray is hibernating with a variety of ailments to body and spirt, hoping to emerge renewed in Australia in the new year.
Ferrer's task was considerable, despite his surge in the round robin matches. The momentum was with him for a snapshot moment or two. He took it to the great man from the first game; at 2-2, he saved break point to hold. Then reality kicked in.
Having lost his last round-robin match in three sets the previous evening to Berdych, Ferrer – who had to play near his best to overcome a one-legged Murray in the first round – was one of the tournament's exhausted walking targets, but he showed eye-blazing vigour that made his game a neat fit with the languid skills of his opponent.
Federer's revamped backhand deserted him under pressure in the fifth game, going wide and long then into the net as mistakes mounted, but he held. He hit nervelessly through five deuce points to hold serve at 5-5.
Federer played a masterful rally, finished with a backhand volley, to hold two break points. Ferrer, looking ragged as Federer pulled him at will back and forth across the baseline, struck wildly and a forehand inched outside the white line. The set was gone from his limp grasp.
He went 2-0 down after a few minutes in the second set and, when he was dragged to deuce to hold in the fifth game, his resistance ebbed. Federer rifled a forehand down the line in the ninth game, and Ferrer could do no more than get the edge of the frame on to the whirring ball. He left for Spain's Davis Cup final with Argentina a shredded version of himself, a parting pat on the back from his conqueror scant consolation.