LONDON -- To use the word "peaking" to describe Novak Djokovic at the ATP World Tour Finals would be, in British lingo, daft.
Djokovic has had another draining season, perhaps more so than his stunning 2011, when he tormented Rafael Nadal and won three of the four majors. He entered the year-end championships with nearly 10 more matches under his belt, dealt with the death of his grandfather in the spring, and an illness to his father has taken up the majority of his thoughts in recent weeks.
But Djokovic's reserves this fall are greater than they were 12 months ago, as evidenced by Sunday's 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win against a Juan Martin del Potro, who is fast approaching 2009 form. Trailing by a set and a break and watching many a del Potro projectile forehand fizz past him, Djokovic recovered, then eventually coasted to advance to his first year-end final since he won the elite event in 2008.
"I think after the U.S. Open last year Novak accomplished everything and shut down a little bit in the fall," said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, who competed at three year-end championships. "He really wants to establish himself heading into 2013, and to me, he's played with a lot more purpose and conviction here. I think it's a building block for him for next year."
Roger Federer, a six-time champion here at the year-end event, awaits Monday. The Federer-Andy Murray clash was the more attractive semifinal, yet Murray, the reigning U.S. Open champion, crumbled disappointingly in front of his home public after squandering a break advantage in the first set. The Swiss advanced 7-6 (5), 6-2 in the evening session to complete the trifecta between these two on UK soil.
Federer triumphed in the Wimbledon final about a month before he was topped by the Scot in the Olympic gold-medal decider.
Now Federer turns his attention to Djokovic in a rivalry that has been recently defined by the Serb saving match points in the U.S. Open semifinals in 2010 and 2011. Federer's victory at the French Open last year, however, when he ended Djokovic's 43-match winning streak with a Davis Cup-like crowd firmly behind him, shouldn't be forgotten.
Federer will be the crowd favorite again, to Djokovic's chagrin, even if the fans in London aren't as rowdy as they were in Paris. Federer has the momentum in their head-to-heads, winning two in a row, and is considered the better indoor player.
"I love playing against Novak," said Federer, the two-time defending champion. "He's had a great year. He's had a great tournament so far. He played another good, tough match today against Juan Martin, who had him on the ropes.
"For me, I think for both of us, it's pretty straightforward. I think we've got to press out the last juice that's left in our body and make it a successful year end, even though it's been successful for everybody who has been taking part in this tournament. But it is a big opportunity playing sort of the last match of the season."
The 2012 Djokovic hasn't ripped through opponents like last year. Against del Potro, his game deteriorated early, which was highlighted by a comfortable-looking smash that took one bounce prior to finding the net and a between-the-legs effort that went horribly wrong. He was spared when he broke del Potro at 1-2 in the second set to begin the comeback.
The wait for Djokovic's postmatch news conference was a long one, possibly suggesting something was amiss. But if there was indeed something wrong, he didn't admit it.
"We just took a little more time to do the postmatch recovery program because I'm going to play [Monday]," he said. "I needed to be fresh and ready for a press conference, as you guys always can be very challenging."
Djokovic later handed out chocolates to journalists as thanks for their "cooperation" in 2012.
"That's very nice and thoughtful of Novak at year end," Federer said. "I must say, I'm impressed."
Federer impressed against Murray. He stayed true to his aggressive roots as Murray targeted the Federer backhand. Only intermittently did Murray try to bully Federer from the baseline.
Federer showed no ill-effects from his three-set loss to del Potro on Saturday, getting a good night's sleep. Gilbert suspects playing three days in succession won't affect the aging 17-time Grand Slam winner.
"He doesn't even change shirts; he doesn't sweat," Gilbert said. "The guy is the youngest 31-year-old, so he is fine. Even when he plays a long match, he doesn't stress."