LONDON -- For neutrals, it was the perfect end to tennis' individual season. Roger Federer finally got the better of Rafael Nadal to win a record-tying fifth year-end championship and boost the intrigue heading into January's Australian Open.
Federer played a brilliant first set in London, one of the best you'll ever witness, and took advantage of a rare Nadal lapse in the third to prevail 6-3, 3-6, 6-1. Federer downed the Spaniard for just the second time in their past eight meetings.
Turning point: Nadal's mental toughness is rightly lauded, but the world No. 1 stumbled serving at 1-2 in the third. He powered his way to a 40-15 advantage, then couldn't put away a forehand pass, the kind he usually deposits for a winner. At deuce, the forehand -- his bread-and-butter shot -- let him down. Under no pressure, it sailed inches wide cross court. Federer stepped it up on the ensuing point, attacking, to register the break for 3-1. Game over.
Note that the lone break of the first came after Nadal let a 30-0 lead slip.
Stat of the match: Federer won an astounding 92 percent of points behind his first serve (37 of 40).
Stat of the match II: Nadal's baseline numbers. Uncharacteristically, Nadal had more unforced errors than winners on his forehand side and delivered only one backhand winner -- compared to eight unforced. Nadal didn't admit it, but he looked jaded at times, too, not chasing down balls he normally does. That can happen, even to Nadal, when one toils for more than three hours the day before.
What Federer did well: What did Federer not do well? Federer signaled his intent in Nadal's opening service game, going for returns on second serve, and continuing to do so, even when missing. Good sign. He didn't go into a shell.
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He was hugging the baseline, driving through backhands -- you could count the number of backhand slices he hit all match -- and transitioning to the net effectively. The forehand looked like the forehand of old in the first set.
Federer used the serve out wide to the Nadal backhand perfectly on the deuce side. Nadal had no answer, never making an adjustment.
The low-bouncing court wasn't as conducive to Nadal's heavy spin.
Entertainment factor: We'll give it a seven out of 10. Was it as good as the Wimbledon final of 2008 or Australian Open final of 2009? No. Comparing best-of-three to best-of-five and Slams versus non-Slams is silly.
But there's always intrigue when the titans square off. Federer needed this win much more than Nadal, and we saw that in his jubilant celebration.
What this means for Federer: Federer will enter 2011 on a high. All the work he's putting in under newish coach Paul Annacone is paying off. Federer went an impressive 21-2 since his semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic at Flushing Meadows, the most calendar-year victories of his career from the conclusion of the U.S. Open to the end of a season.
His motivation is sky-high, even with 16 majors and a young family.
What this means for Nadal: Not much. The defeat won't sting. Nadal made progress by advancing to the final, something he's never done before at the tournament, on his least-productive surface. The brand of high-risk tennis Federer used isn't as amenable in a best-of-five format. If they meet in Melbourne -- it looks likely -- Nadal probably will be much fresher.