Posted: Tuesday November 29, 2011 12:09PM ; Updated: Tuesday November 29, 2011 5:35PM
Bruce Jenkins
Bruce Jenkins>INSIDE TENNIS

Federer's mastery down the stretch sparks memories of Sampras

Story Highlights

With other players hurt, Roger Federer was the best, freshest player in London

The indoor conditions set up perfectly for Federer's offensive game

While Federer's game sets up for longevity, Rafael Nadal could be nearing burnout

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Roger Federer
Roger Federer won a record 6th title at the ATP World Tour Finals without dropping a match.
Sang Tan/AP

The ATP World Tour Finals event was a colossal letdown on many fronts, replete with injuries, dubious effort and the crystal-clear messages from Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal that the men's Tour simply runs too long. None of that seemed particularly surprising. The overriding story, from this viewpoint, was a Roger Federer masterpiece recalling the best of Pete Sampras.

I doubt if Sampras ever claimed the Tour should be curtailed. On the contrary, he became an absolute madman after the U.S. Open, intent on finishing the year as the No. 1-ranked player. Most of his fellow pros set their sights on a major title, or a career-best performance, but Sampras had bigger things in mind. Jimmy Connors had finished the year at No. 1 five times, and Sampras wanted to break that record in the worst way.

While others scoffed or tried to downplay the significance of such a thing, Sampras tied and then broke that record, proving to himself -- if no one else -- that it stood for something magnificent. Here was a man reviled (in some quarters) for his slump-shouldered demeanor and a history of on-court ailments, yet he proved to be the toughest guy in tennis. To me, when it comes to Sampras' place among the all-time greats, those feats of endurance carry equal weight with his 14 major titles.

How remarkable that we find the 30-year-old Federer at the top of the men's Tour just now, if not in ranking (he bypassed Andy Murray to reclaim the No. 3 slot) then certainly in reputation. While most everyone else had issues, with a ready-made excuse in the Tour's punishing schedule, Federer spoke and played like the best and freshest player in the field.

He seemed to know it all along. Before the WTF began, he tossed a bit of cold water on Murray's impressive run through the Asian swing, reminding everyone that "Novak wasn't there, I wasn't there, and [in Shanghai] Rafa lost early."

As the injuries piled up, he insisted, "My body, even if it's injured, can still play really well. Whereas maybe other players, if they are injured, it doesn't work anymore."

Perhaps he was a bit too dismissive at the interview podium, but it's clear that Federer wasn't hearing of "decline" or theories that he could no longer "finish" an important match. Best of all, the WTF was held indoors. I'm inclined to believe you could move this tournament to any month of the year, with everyone healthy, and as long as it was on an indoor court, Federer would win.

With a roof over his head and all contrary elements removed, Federer calls to mind a master photographer shooting his dream subject in perfect light. As Nadal said, after absorbing a 6-3, 6-0 beating in his group-stage loss to Federer, "His level was something only a player like Roger can arrive at. All the conditions were perfect for him because the bounces are not too high. ... The ball doesn't move. No wind."

Fans were left with the undeniable impression that Federer, in these conditions, remains the purest striker of the ball. He finished tight matches with a flourish. He closed out the year unbeaten since the U.S. Open, and as the only man to beat a fully healthy and motivated Djokovic (at the French Open) during the Serb's epic 2011. Perhaps the tennis year runs too long, but its climax lent great promise for the year to come.

Down the line

• As discouraging as it was to hear Djokovic's remarks about "overload" and "I wasn't there" and "it's been too much this year," the WTF's low point was the Federer-Nadal dynamic. As if Nadal didn't have enough problems with Djokovic -- a mental and strategic crisis he's all too willing to address in public -- he was blown off the court in the latest renewal of this once-storied rivalry.

We'll see how the clearly fatigued Nadal responds in the upcoming Davis Cup final against Argentina, and the 2012 clay-court season will define the true state of his game. For years, though, insiders wondered how long Nadal could sustain his command -- that fierce desire to win every point, the astounding feats of defensive play, the flourish of his wicked groundstrokes to the corners. The vintage Nadal was a whirlwind of destruction, leaving fallen and shell-shocked players in its wake, but it left the hint of early burnout.

No one in his right mind would dismiss Nadal quite yet, but we've never witnessed such resignation in his play -- or his comments in the aftermath. There are signs that the Tour is catching up to Nadal, best expressed by journalist Matt Cronin: "Tennis is very much a confidence game, and when your best stuff comes back with more authority -- like what has happened to Nadal against Djokovic -- a player becomes unsure of what his money shots are, and his familiar patterns begin to confuse him."

• Great stuff from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga throughout the event, particularly his bold forays into all-court virtuosity. If you think the game has said farewell to serve-and-volley tennis and a general desire to rush the net, you didn't see Tsonga's play at crucial times.

With Federer serving for the title at 5-4 in the second set, Tsonga chose a sliced backhand approach shot -- a true vision of the past -- for a second-serve return. It clearly confounded Federer, who tried to run around his backhand and sent it into the net. The next time Tsonga got a second serve, he hammered a cross-court forehand with the same vicious abandon we saw from Djokovic on that memorable match point against Federer at the U.S. Open. Finally, with a break point at 30-40, Tsonga came in behind a massive backhand return, put Federer on the defensive and ended the point with a forehand volley winner.

After his thrilling three-set victory over Nadal, Tsonga claimed he was "less fast, less powerful, but I'm better in the head." I'm not sure he's "less" anything, rather more prepared than ever to win his first major.

• Whether he sat next to Ted Robinson or Leif Shiras in the Tennis Channel booth, Jimmy Arias provided spot-on commentary all week. Even with Tomas Berdych appearing to be at his best, breaking Djokovic go up 4-2 in the third set, Arias told his audience, "I still find it hard to believe that Djokovic is going to lose." As if on cue, Berdych double-faulted twice to lose his serve, and he wasn't able to cash in a match point with Djokovic serving at 5-6, 30-40.

• Janko Tipsarevic wasn't sure how the crowd would react when he took out Djokovic, waving feebly and expecting the worst. But there was a roar of appreciation for this highly entertaining player, and it was nice to hear him speak up for himself later: "You have all these guys saying they're playing on empty tanks, but I think I'm the guy, counting Davis Cup, who has played the most matches this season."

• Of all the reactions to Yannick Noah's reckless comments about Spanish athletes and performance-enhancing drugs, I liked Michael Llodra's the most. Lifting a hand and tilting it over his mouth, Llodra suggested his French countryman might have had too much to drink.

 
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