By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Roger Federer has one of the world’s best overheads so when he botched two smashes on his way to dropping serve in the second game of his ATP Finals semi-final against Stefanos Tsitsipas on Saturday he knew it might be a rough day.
So it proved as the 20-times Grand Slam champion went down 6-3 6-4 to the 21-year-old Greek who has taken the tournament by storm on his debut appearance.
While Tsitsipas, in Federer’s words, was “as hard as nails”, the Swiss great converted only one of the 12 break points as his hopes of a seventh title at the season-ender fell flat.
“I think getting broken with missing two smashes in one game, that hasn’t happened in a long, long time or ever,” the 38-year-old told reporters. “So that was tough.
“That’s not something you can train or practise for. That’s tough, just feet were not quite there yet, still not quite getting used to the high one and all that stuff.”
Although failing to scale the heights he achieved on Thursday when beating Novak Djokovic, Federer did not play badly.
Had he taken his chances it could have been different and the ninth game of the first set, a thrilling 13-minute baseline battle in which Federer saved six set points before the aggressive Tsitsipas finally sealed the set, was crucial.
Federer did respond after being broken early in the second set, but Tsitsipas refused to take a backward step as he claimed a second win of the year over Federer.
Tsitsipas’s victory meant the last of the big three of Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were out of the exclusive year-ender.
With the other semi-final between defending champion Alexander Zverev, 22, and 26-year-old Dominic Thiem, it is perhaps another signal that the old guard are under attack like never before. Or perhaps not.
“I just think they have proven their point this year by qualifying for the ATP Finals, and also now at least one of them making it to the finals and maybe also Sascha again repeating what he did last year,” Federer said.
“But then I look at the list of who finished world number one, who has been world number one all these years, and it’s just crazy that it’s always one of us.
“But we are not getting any younger. So chances increase not because we are getting worse but because they are getting better, I believe.”
One suspects Tsitsipas’s fearless, attacking style would get the nod of approval from Federer and he was generous in his praise for the youngster who has made stunning progress into the world’s top 10 this year.
“I have to credit him for pushing me to not playing at the level I was hoping to today,” Federer said. “It’s his footwork that’s always on the aggressive side.
“Any short ball will be attacked, and I think he does that very, very well. He’s one of the best at that in the game.
“He did come up with the goods when he had to, and he was better than me today.”
Despite winning four titles this year to take his career haul to 104, Federer failed to add to his Grand Slam collection.
But he remains upbeat about the future.
“I’ve got to keep on playing at the level like I have this year, and then I will create some chances,” he said.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)