It’s a common occurrence in sports: During a tournament, a season, a series, any kind of competition, an elite team or athlete gets away with a bad day at the office or a frustrating series of events, barely scraping through to live another day. Given a reprieve, that athlete or team regains form and focus, making use of the good fortune that comes its way.
This is the story of Roger Federer at the ATP’s Shanghai Rolex Masters 1000 event, which is now in the books.
Federer won his 23rd Masters 1000 title and his 81st career title by claiming the final on Sunday over a revived and persistent Gilles Simon, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (2). The victory adds to Federer’s rankings-point haul, pushing him over 9,000 at the moment and cementing his place as the No. 2 player in the world over a (currently) luckless Rafael Nadal, whose bout with appendicitis hampered his play in an opening-match loss to eventual semifinalist Feliciano Lopez. Federer isn’t likely to surpass Novak Djokovic as the year-end No. 1 player on tour, but the fact that he even has a mathematical chance of doing so at this point is quite a statement in itself for the player who was No. 7 in the world 12 months ago and eighth as recently as the first week of March.
No, Federer did not win a major tournament in 2014. Yes, as Nadal’s and Djokovic’s fans will accurately note, best-of-five-set matches against elite players at the majors were hard for Federer to win this year, and will continue to be hard for the Swiss to claim as he ages. Yes, Federer would swap his Shanghai semifinal win over Djokovic for his loss to the Serb in the Wimbledon final. Djokovic won the most important match between the two players this year.
Yet, what’s one supposed to say about Federer — that these accomplishments at age 33, though not unprecedented, are pedestrian? That a first Shanghai Masters title doesn’t mean much? That — however true it might be — Federer lifts his game when Nadal isn’t in a tournament or a side of the bracket?
The lack of a major definitely represents an empty spot on the trophy case for Federer in 2014, given how well he’s played throughout the year, but this climb to number two now includes a pair of Masters 1000 scalps, and back-to-back ones at that. Nadal, though injured for multiple months, was his generally strong (not airtight, but strong) self on clay this year. Djokovic has added a major title to his collection of hardware, and he defeated Federer in another final at Indian Wells. Yet, as well as those two have continued to play, it is reasonable — not irrefutable, but reasonable — to contend that Federer has been the single most consistent performer on the ATP Tour in 2014. Federer shows that while the body eventually meets its limits, those limits can be kept at arm’s length, and that age can just be a number if a pinch of fortune enters the equation every now and then.
Luck is part of the story, but making use of luck is the bookend which makes the story complete. This reality was very much in evidence over the past week in China.
The story of Federer’s fortune this past week is told in the photo and caption below:
Federer’s win over Mayer enabled him to move to No. 2 in the world — that was the immediate, locked-in benefit of his victory. Beyond that, however, Federer didn’t gain any other tangible reward from the escape. He gained the intangible benefit of a second chance and the potential psychological lift it offered, but as the U.S. Open showed, an escape in one match (Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals) doesn’t necessarily lead to a feast of full-flight fun in later rounds (Marin Cilic in the semifinals). Federer would have left Shanghai without anything of note had he meekly bowed out of the tournament following the loss to Mayer. He got caught in a first-set tiebreaker against Julien Benneteau in the quarterfinals. If that had gone the other way, Federer could have been in a position to lament all the long, drawn-out sets he had played and concede a small but crucial piece of turf.
Federer won that breaker and moved through in straights.
Federer could have submitted to Djokovic in the semis — after all, Djokovic had won 28 straight matches in China, dating back to 2010. Djokovic’s defense was as locked in as it has ever been in Beijing the week prior, when the Serb fended off Andy Murray en route to an ATP 500 title at the China Open. Djokovic wobbled a bit against Mikhail Kukushkin in the Shanghai round of 16, but entering his match with Federer, he deserved to be seen as the favorite in a tournament he had come to own. Had Federer lost that match, he would have walked away with a modest point pickup in Shanghai… and very little else. A good season wouldn’t have added a particularly notable chapter.
Federer managed to take that one lucky moment against Mayer (a series of lucky moments if you wanted to be more expansive) and truly maximize its impact.
Federer played what could legitimately be seen as his best match of the year against Djokovic. Giving away hardly any points and avoiding the noted “second-set walkabout” tendency that has often visited his matches over time, Federer absorbed a quality effort from the world No. 1. The showcase game of the match was a marathon at 4-3 in the second set. Djokovic escaped from a 40-love hole as the returner of serve. He benefited from a poorly-chosen Federer volley (angle, speed, placement — the works) to get to deuce. All in all, Djokovic saved seven game points in that one game, repeatedly pushing Federer to deuce with high-level shots under pressure. Yet, the Swiss kept winning deuce points with equal flair and skill, and on his eighth game point, he finally broke through.
That 4-3 service hold in the second set of the Djokovic semifinal was a microcosm of the match and, for that matter, the post-Mayer portion of Federer’s week. Federer encountered a number of frustrating moments that, especially in 2013, would have led to self-doubt and a subsequent implosion. In this tournament and for the vast majority of 2014, Federer has worked through those moments to play focused tennis on the biggest points. This ability was very much in evidence in Sunday’s final against Simon.
Federer squandered an easy volley late in the first-set tiebreaker and faced a set point, down 5-6, but two huge serves were there when the Swiss needed them to get to 7-6. On his set point in the breaker, Federer nailed a down-the-line backhand pass to enter set two with a lead. In that second set, Federer again faced set points, serving at 5-6, 15-40. Federer could have faltered, but a solid wide serve (15-40) and steady groundstrokes preceding a bad Simon error (30-40) enabled the Swiss to find the temporary safety of deuce and the more permanent safety of a service hold and a tiebreaker. In that breaker, Federer flourished, uncorking a series of fluid winners, particularly at 4-2 and 5-2, to nail down a first Shanghai Masters title. A lucky break against Leonardo Mayer could have been a very temporary and otherwise unremarkable occurrence; Federer turned it into a championship and everything that comes with a trophy on the final Sunday at a tennis tournament.
THE OTHER STORIES
The Shanghai Masters, like the BNP Paribas Masters (otherwise known as the Paris-Bercy Masters or, more informally, Bercy), annually represents “crunch time” for ATP players ranked sixth through 12th, or thereabouts. The players in the top five enter October generally secure in knowing that they’ll make the eight-man money-grab known as the ATP World Tour Finals, a TV-friendly singles showcase on an indoor hardcourt in London. For the players ranked six through twelve, the October Masters events are the final high-volume point-producing opportunities on the road to London, also known in more precise terms as the ATP points “race,” which refers to points accumulated during the calendar year. (Rankings points, separate from the race, are the 52-week accumulations of points that reset based on tournaments, not the changing of the calendar year the way race points do.)
In Shanghai, then, the Race To London encountered nothing but speed-bumps for the players that haven’t yet officially secured a berth in the World Tour Finals. Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and (this week) Stan Wawrinka are in. As this release from the ATP World Tour notes, Marin Cilic is on the precipice of qualifying. Once Cilic formally punches his ticket to London, three spots will remain. Kei Nishikori has a modest but real lead and should enter Bercy (Oct. 27 in Paris) with a leg up on his competitors. However, his second-round loss to Jack Sock prevented him from gaining a stranglehold on a plane flight to London.
In many ways, the true fight for London is a battle for the last two spots (seven and eight), and Shanghai clouded this competition rather than lending clarity to the matter.
Tomas Berdych sits in seventh, but his loss to Simon in the quarterfinals of Shanghai — he could have played Feliciano Lopez in the semis, a match he would have been favored to win — denied him the added points that could have gone a long way toward sewing up a spot in the World Tour Finals.
Milos Raonic is in the eighth and final spot, but after retiring in the second round (against Juan Monaco), he’s right near the cut line and will surely have to produce at least one strong tournament — ideally Bercy — in the coming weeks to make the end-of-the-year party in the United Kingdom.
Grigor Dimitrov crashed out of Shanghai, losing to Julien Benneteau in the second. He’s in the worst shape of any remaining competitor in the Race To London.
The foremost drama in the Race To London this past week was the quarterfinal clash between Andy Murray and David Ferrer. Both men are still behind Raonic in the race, but their meeting carried with it 180 points, the difference between being a quarterfinalist and a semifinalist at a Masters event. Bagging — or losing — that many points at this stage of the tennis season is, though not everything, a nice stack of poker chips to collect.
Murray has been waiting, waiting, waiting, hoping for a breakthrough under new coach Amelie Mauresmo. Murray, in one of those curveballs that makes you shake your head at the trolling capacity of sports, made the Roland Garros semifinals this year, his best showing at any of the four majors. (Clay is Murray’s worst surface by far, making his French Open run so conspicuously odd in relation to his inferior showings at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and the U.S. Open.) He played Djokovic well in a U.S. Open quarterfinal loss, and had reason to think that his game was coming around.
In the first set of this quarterfinal with Ferrer in China, Murray calmly took care of business, and those 180 points were on the verge of floating into his pocket. Ferrer, who experienced noticeable physical distress (to the point that he felt the need to check his pulse) in a third-round loss to Gilles Simon at the U.S. Open, has endured a miserable 2014 after a steady run of excellence in previous seasons. Ferrer’s run to the Cincinnati Masters final (he lost to Federer) was much more an aberrational event in 2014 than an indicator of his week-to-week form. Murray had to be seen as the favorite after he tucked away the first set without too much of a problem.
Yet, Ferrer — playing with the bouncy enthusiasm that defines him when he’s at his best — engaged Murray in long rallies and hardly made a mistake over the last two sets. Ferrer won 12 of the last 15 games of the match to win the second and third sets by 6-1 and 6-2 scorelines. This might not mean that Ferrer is fully “back” for 2015, but the result surely gives the Spaniard reason to hope that he can regain past form next season. More immediately, the win puts Ferrer in ninth place, right behind Raonic and just ahead of Murray, in the three-player chase that will probably go down to the wire at the Paris-Bercy Masters in two weeks.
That’s all for this week at Attacking The Net. Our next wrap-up will cover the WTA Finals, the eight-player season-ending bash for the women’s tour in Singapore. That tournament begins on Monday, Oct. 20 and concludes on Sunday, Oct. 26. You’ll see a stand-alone piece on that event come Monday, Oct. 27.