04:58 PM GMT November 06, 2019
Show of hands – who remembers the autumn of 2002? Need your mind refreshing? Avril Lavigne’s angry anthem ‘Complicated’ battled with Shakira’s sugary ‘Whenever, Wherever’ as the top pop song. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was the season’s top grossing movie. In the autumn of 2002, no one had a Facebook account, twitter was something birds did and google was known mostly as an obscure maths term.
And that November in Shanghai, a pony-tailed 21-year-old from Switzerland – blessed with vast talent that had yet to fully alchemise – played in what was then called the Tennis Masters Cup. It was the ATP’s annual year-end competition, pitting the eight best players in the world against each other in a round-robin format, followed by knock-out rounds. Moving with a sort of feline grace, zinging a drop-dead-gorgeous onehanded backhand, failing to sweat or grunt, and playing with an artist’s sensibilities (and, sometimes, an artist’s temperament), this ascending Swiss player won his first three matches, before falling in a tight three-set semi-final to Lleyton Hewitt of Australia.
No one knew it at the time, of course, but this 2002 tournament would mark the start of a remarkable tennis run. Roger Federer, that young Swiss talent, was just warming up. This year is the 17th time – let that number sink in – that Federer has qualified for the ATP Tour’s year-end lollapalooza, now known as the Nitto ATP Finals. That is a tournament record: only once since 2002, in 2016, has Federer not qualified, and that was the year he ended his season after Wimbledon to recover from injury.
Since 2002, this event has crisscrossed the globe, before putting down firm roots in London. It has been indoors and outdoors and then again indoors, and with slightly different formats (finals used to be the best of five sets). It has come to feature replays over disputed line calls. It has become synonymous with Nitto, the title sponsor. Through it all, there has been a reliable constant: the presence of Federer.
There are, of course, abundant claims that Federer is the singular towering player in men’s tennis, the GOAT, or Greatest of All Time, in the vernacular. When considering the evidence to support his case, much attention should be paid to his body of work at this year-end event. Playing against the other seven best players in the world – no byes, no wild cards, no easy matches – Federer has compiled a peerless record. Runners talk of “finishing strong,” and completing races with no regret. Federer does this for the tennis season. Year-in, year-out, at the year’s coda event, he is still going strong, still capable of his most breath-taking tennis. It’s a testament not just to superior tennis but also superior durability.
Federer’s overall record at the Nitto ATP Finals? It’s so preposterous it triggers a smile. Bear in mind the quality of the opposition before taking the full measure of these stats. In 16 appearances, Federer has won a record six titles, won 57 of 72 matches and nearly $16 million in prize money. Never mind Federer’s 20 Grand Slam singles titles. On his record at the year-end event alone, he could qualify for the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Some highlights of Federer at his last event of the season. In 2003, Federer truly announced himself. A few months removed from his major breakthrough – the 2003 Wimbledon title – Federer capped his year by deploying his sorcery to great effect on an outdoor court in Houston, Texas. It was a fitting way to conclude the season. And Federer put the world on notice. “Trust me,” Andre Agassi said after losing the final, “you’re going to be hearing a lot more from Roger Federer.” Not only was Agassi, of course, right, but it didn’t take long. A few weeks later, Federer ascended to No. 1 in the ATP Rankings, and he finished 2004 by winning this title again.
In 2006 and 2007, Federer cemented his greatness, not just by winning majors, but also by landing back-to-back year-end championships, ruthlessly charging through the field and beating a variety of opponents, including in 2007 a 6-4, 6-1 takedown over Nadal, one of Federer’s more comprehensive wins over his rival.
Federer’s finest ATP Finals event? It might have come at The O2 in 2010 when he won his first four matches in straight sets. In the final, he notched another win over Nadal, beating him 6-3, 3-6, 6-1. Afterwards, he was asked how long he could continue. “At the moment I have no plans at all of stopping, quitting, whatever you want to call it,” he said. “I hope I can play for many more years to come. It’s a goal anyway. I think it’s possible.” And the next year, he won this tournament again, the third time he had landed back-to-back titles.
Federer came to his 17th Nitto ATP Finals in an uncertain position. You will recall his previous singles match played in the Greater London area. In the 2019 Wimbledon final, Federer, then a few weeks from turning 38, had match points to beat Novak Djokovic and win at the All England Club for a record-extending ninth time. You will also likely recall what happened next. Federer hit a serve down the middle that was destined to be an ace. But the ball then clipped the net and seemed to say: “Nah, I’m good over here.” The crowd groaned. Djokovic grinned in relief. He then won the point, the game, and the match 13-12 in the fifth set.
That was a golden chance for Federer to win a 21st Grand Slam and the sting of defeat would have been difficult to overcome. But the glass half-full take is that the guy is crowding age 40 and he’s still coming within inches (literally) of winning majors. The guy who addressed retirement speculation nine years ago is still among the elite.
Like a reliable patron coming back to a welcoming pub, Federer returns to the comfort and familiarity of the Nitto ATP Finals. The draw will be flush with challenges and challengers. Federer knows all too well it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Having qualified for the 17th time, Federer will try to finish a tennis season on a winning note, by yet again conquering its most elite event.