Federer has everyone where he wants them

The greatest player in the history of the ATP Tour’s official year-end championships barely crept into the elite eight who comprise the singles field this year.

That’s Roger Federer, the six-time ATP World Tour Finals champ. He qualified for the No. 7 spot but was moved up to No. 6 because No. 3 Andy Murray is out while he recuperates from back surgery. Federer is ranked ahead of his countryman Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet, but only by a narrow margin. Based on ranking points alone, Federer would seem anything but a contender for the title that is expected to go to either No. 1 Rafael Nadal or No. 2 Novak Djokovic.

This state of affairs is likely to make Federer particularly dangerous, because only someone living under a rock the past decade would buy into the idea that Federer is the sixth-most dangerous guy in the field. Granted, he’s 32 years old now, and he’s managed to win just one title this year (a lowly ATP 250 at Halle). He has suffered some losses that can only be called humiliating (No. 116-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round of Wimbledon; No. 114 Federico Delbonis in Hamburg). And Federer's confusion and indecisiveness on the court have sometimes been striking.

In other words, Federer may have everyone right where he wants them.

Federer will be under no pressure at this World Tour Finals in London, which start today and run through next Monday. There’s no specter of a bad loss looming -- there are no bad players in the field. He also seems to be getting his game back together. He lost the Basel final to Juan Martin del Potro (the No. 5 World Tour qualifier) just two weeks ago but avenged himself on Delpo last week in the Paris Masters quarterfinals. Federer enjoys this hybrid round-robin format and likes his chances when the conditions are predictable (the World Tour Finals are played on an indoor hard court in London’s 02 Arena). Finally, he’ll have a great chance to influence the outcome of the year in tennis -- no matter how far he goes in the tournament.

For most great players, the next best thing to winning a tournament is beating the guy who’s supposed to win it. The inelegant way to put this is that if you can’t win the danged thing, you can sure spoil it for someone else -- just to make your presence felt. Just to say, “Forget me at your peril.”

Federer is in the seemingly more competitive Group B, which is led by Djokovic and also includes del Potro and Gasquet. The lineup in Group A is Nadal, Wawrinka, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych. Nadal’s combined record against Group A members is 47-8. Djokovic’s record versus Group B is 32-20. Guess who among the six men under the top two has a winning record over the top man in his group?

Yep, Federer. He’s 16-14 against Djokovic.

You’re probably aware that Djokovic still has an outside shot at taking back the No. 1 ranking from Nadal before the end of the year. In order to do it, Djokovic will have to win this event (and run the table without losing a match) and collect the 300 ranking points offered later in the Davis Cup final.

Even if Djokovic does that, two round-robin wins by Nadal would guarantee him the top year-end ranking. So when Federer plays Djokovic on Tuesday night in London, he’ll be in a position to stop Djokovic’s quest in its tracks. Federer is a nice guy, but not that nice -- don’t think for a moment that he wouldn’t love to shatter Djokovic’s aspirations.

True, Djokovic handled Federer just a few days ago in the semifinals in Paris. But Federer looked sharp in that one. He won the first set but was unable to sustain his high level in the third. He’ll have a precious extra day of rest, while Djokovic will have to avoid a mental or physical letdown from having won a Masters 1000 title Sunday. We won’t even talk about the pressure he’ll feel, knowing that unlike everyone else in the field, he can’t afford to lose even a round-robin match -- not if he wants to get back that top ranking.

Great champions don’t like to think of themselves as spoilers -- leave that to the likes of Berdych and Ferrer. But at this stage, after the trials and tribulations of 2013, surely Federer himself must think that while it’s not the role he sees himself in, it sure beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.