As the world's best tennis players prepared for their end-of-season finale in Shanghai two autumns ago, Andy Roddick was asked what he thought about Roger Federer's "average year", in which the Swiss had won the US Open and reached two other Grand Slam finals.
"All I know is that if someone calls Roger 'average' they had better be really, really, good at what they do," Roddick said. "People saying that has been pissing me off all year. I don't know what else the guy needs to do to get the respect that he deserves. I'll take his average year any time."
With the world's top eight men heading for London's O2 Arena, where the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals begin this Sunday, the question will no doubt be posed again. Almost any player in history would have settled for Federer's 2010 season, which he will end as world No 2 after winning one Grand Slam tournament, reaching the semi-finals of two others and the quarter-finals of the fourth. However, when you have won more Grand Slam singles titles (16) and more prize-money ($58.4m or £36.7m) than any other man, you are not expected to lose to opponents like Ernests Gulbis and Albert Montanes, as Federer did in Rome and Estoril respectively this year.
The longer-term picture tells its own story. Between August 2004 and March 2007 Federer lost a total of nine matches; in 2010 he has already been beaten 13 times, with Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Robin Soderling, Andy Murray (twice), Tomas Berdych (twice), Nikolay Davydenko, Gaël Monfils, Marcos Baghdatis and Lleyton Hewitt the other players to have claimed his scalp.
Having beaten Murray at the start of this year in the final of the Australian Open, when he reckons he played some of the best tennis of his life, Federer saw his record run of 23 consecutive appearances in Grand Slam semi-finals end when he lost in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros to Soderling, a player he had previously beaten 12 times in a row. At Wimbledon Federer nearly went out in the first round to Colombia's Alejandro Falla, who won the first two sets, before his run of seven successive finals at the All England Club was ended in the quarter-finals by Berdych. Djokovic's victory at the same stage of the US Open ended his sequence of six consecutive appearances in the final at Flushing Meadows.
If Federer is concerned that his days of domination might be over, he is not letting on. As the Swiss sat back in a chair in the players' lounge at last week's Paris Masters, he insisted that 2010 had been a good year, one that could have been significantly better but for a handful of "wasted opportunities".
Nevertheless, would the Federer of old have fumbled the five match points he spurned against Monfils in the Paris semi-finals last weekend? Federer himself recalled other occasions this year when chances have slipped through his grasp. "I had match points in Miami [lost to Berdych], in Indian Wells [lost to Baghdatis] and at the US Open [lost to Djokovic]," he said. "At Halle [lost to Hewitt] I was up 6-3, 4-4 and 0-40. If I'd won one more round each time it would have been a little bit of a different season. I've missed quite a few big opportunities, which has made my season look somewhat fragile – which it wasn't. I think it was a good season."
Until this spring the last time Federer had lost after having a match point was the 2006 Rome Masters final against Nadal. Could he put his finger on what had changed this year? "I don't know. Novak and Baghdatis were on their serve, so you can always say it was more in their control than mine. I think against Berdych I had one match point on my own serve and he got that one back. The next thing you know there goes three matches which you could have won.
"I've always tried to play each point as tough as I can and sometimes it just happens that way. It's not the first time I've lost a big match where I've had match point. I once lost to [Marat] Safin at the Australian Open [in the 2005 semi-finals] when I had a match point. It was a great match from the beginning to the end.
"Sometimes you get unlucky with those kind of runs. You just want to make sure they stop. I struggled to stop the run this year because it continued in Rome, when I lost 7-5 in the third [to Gulbis]. But that's how it went this season.
"To be honest, I don't remember any shocking matches. The shock moment was almost going out in the first round at Wimbledon. That for me was the one I remember the most – not knowing what to do any more, just hanging on to a thread and thinking: 'This is not looking good here. I don't think I'll come out of this one.' But somehow I did."
After Wimbledon Federer clearly felt the need for some fresh input into his game. Since August he has been working with Paul Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras and Tim Henman before joining the Lawn Tennis Association as head coach. The American now works on a part-time basis alongside Severin Luthi, the Swiss Davis Cup captain, who has become a key member of Federer's entourage. The former world No 1 has not employed a full-time coach since parting company with Peter Lundgren seven years ago.
"I just think it's nice to have a different voice once in a while," Federer said. "Maybe Paul's simplified a few things. Maybe I knew a few things but I just needed to hear them differently. For me it's important that he works really well with Severin and that there's a good feeling between the three of us.
"Paul has a lot of experience and that's definitely helped me in a few moments, for sure. He's been sitting on the sidelines watching me play and here he has a chance to give me some input. I'm sure that he's actually been hoping to do that for quite a few years.
"It's good for me to hear what he has to say when he hasn't maybe known all the problems I've had for, say, the last three or five years. Severin has been there the whole time, so they sometimes have a different view of my playing side and where I'm coming from. That's why it's very important that they bounce ideas off each other and come up with the best plan for me."
The results of the new collaboration have been promising. Since the US Open Federer's only defeats have been against Murray in the final of the Shanghai Masters and against Monfils in Paris. Federer believes the improvement is also down to a run of good health and fitness. He traces back each of his disappointments in recent years to interruptions to his training programme: glandular fever before the 2008 Australian Open, a back problem in the build-up to the 2009 season and a lung infection in February this year.
"I think that's what has hurt me most in the last couple of years," he said. "This year, after Wimbledon and again after the US Open, I was really able to work full on, without any problems, and practise extremely hard. I think it's paying off now."
Federer said that freedom from injuries had clearly been key to Nadal's "amazing season", in which his great rival has won three Grand Slam titles and again replaced the Swiss as world No 1. "Not only did he dominate in the Grand Slams, but he's won multiple other titles," Federer said. "He went through some tournaments where he was unbeatable, unreachable, which makes this a great season for him. He's had many good seasons, but this one obviously stands out, because it's been the best season for him at Grand Slam level."
Nevertheless, Nadal has been below his best in recent weeks and Federer is the bookmakers' favourite to win next week, despite a tough round-robin group in which he faces Murray, Soderling and David Ferrer.
Since their Australian Open final Federer has lost both his matches against Murray, in the Masters Series finals at Toronto and Shanghai. The Scot's emphatic victory in China last month was his eighth win in their 13 meetings. "He has very strong things on his side and I have very strong things on my side, and that's why these days when we play each other it comes down to who has the better day," Federer said.
"I tried to play offensively against him in Shanghai and it just didn't work. He played really well and came up with all the answers when he had to. He pushed me to make the mistakes he needed to win.
"I don't feel as though he or I necessarily have an advantage over the other. I just think he's become a really good player, like Djokovic. I think that's the trend at the moment among the top players – everyone beats everyone. That's why I'm happy going to London having won three of my last four matches against Novak over the last couple of months. My record's not so good against Murray and I haven't played Rafa lately, but they're all beating each other, so there's an interesting dynamic. I don't think anyone believes they have an edge over someone else."
Federer was nearly 22 when he won his first Grand Slam title, which made him slower off the mark than many other champions. The Swiss believes that Murray, who was 23 in May, still has plenty of time to make his breakthrough. "It's important that you believe that you can do it – and he clearly has the game to do it," Federer said. "If he wins a first Grand Slam that could possibly open the floodgates, but you never know until he does it."
After Federer had won his hometown tournament in Basle earlier this month his wife, Mirka, brought their 15-month-old twin daughters to the side of the court for the closing ceremony. Might London get a similar glimpse of Charlene Riva and Myla Rose? "I don't know whether they'll come to the arena," Federer said. "It always depends a little bit on how the players' lounge is."
That might also depend – as indeed might Dad's chances of success – on how many unbroken nights the Federers enjoy at their hotel. Do the twins generally manage to sleep through the night? "Not quite yet. They are twins after all. They need more time before they'll sleep through the night. Even if one does, the other one doesn't. It's fine, though. We have a great time."
How the finals work
Tournament format Field split into two round-robin groups of four. Two players from each group advance to knockout semi-finals.
Group A Nadal, Djokovic, Berdych, Roddick.
Group B Federer, Soderling, Murray, Ferrer.
Group A B and M Bryan (US), L Dlouhy (Czech Republic) and L Paes (India), M Fyrstenberg and M Matkowski (Poland), J Melzer (Austria) and P Petzschner (Germany).
Group B D Nestor (Canada) and N Zimonjic (Serbia), L Kubot (Poland) and O Marach (Austria), M Bhupathi (India) and M Mirnyi (Belarus), W Moodie (S Africa) and D Norman (Belgium).
Sunday Afternoon (12.15): Bryan and Bryan v Melzer and Petzschner; (not before 2pm) Murray v Soderling. Evening (18.15): Dlouhy and Paes v Fyrstenberg and Matkowski; (not before 8pm) Federer v Ferrer.
Monday Afternoon (12.15): Bhupathi and Mirnyi v Kubot and Marach; (not before 2pm) Djokovic v Berdych. Evening (18.15): Nestor and Zimonjic v Moodie and Norman; (not before 8pm) Nadal v Roddick.
Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri TBA.
Singles prize-money Participation fee $120,000 ($70,000 if only one match played, $95,000 if only two matches played). Each victory in round-robin phase $120,000. Semi-final win: $380,000. Final win $770,000. Total prize-money for undefeated champion $1,630,000 (about £1.02m).
Eight aces set to grace the 02
Rafael Nadal (Spain)
World ranking 1.
Grand Slam best Won French Open (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010), Wimbledon (2008, 2010), Australian Open (2009), US Open (2010)
World Tour Finals best Semi-finals (2006, 2007)
Aiming to become only second man (after Andre Agassi) to win all four Grand Slam titles, Olympic gold, Davis Cup and end-of-year championships. However, his year seems to have taken its toll in recent weeks.
Roger Federer (Switzerland)
World ranking 2.
Grand Slam best Won Wimbledon (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009), Australian Open (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010), US Open (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008), French Open (2009)
World Tour Finals best Winner (2003, 04, 06, 07)
Recently dropped out of top two in world rankings for first time in seven years. On his day still the best on quicker surfaces but struggles to maintain consistency.
Novak Djokovic (Serbia)
World ranking 3.
Grand Slam best Won Australian Open (2008)
World Tour Finals best Winner (2008)
Reached first Grand Slam final for two and a half years at US Open two months ago, losing to Nadal. Playing in Serbia's first Davis Cup final against France in a fortnight's time may be a bigger priority than London.
Robin Soderling (Sweden)
World ranking 4.
Grand Slam best French Open runner-up (2009, 2010)
World Tour Finals best Semi-finals (2009)
Transformed from journeyman pro into major contender after beating Nadal in the quarter-finals of last year's French Open. Overtook Murray in rankings by winning first Masters Series title in Paris last weekend.
Andy Murray (Britain)
World ranking 5.
Grand Slam best Runner-up at US Open (2008) and Australian Open (2010)
World Tour Finals best Semi-finals (2008)
Hit form of his life to reach Australian Open final in January but has had up-and-down year. Has won two Masters Series titles since splitting with his coach, Miles Maclagan, who has yet to be replaced.
Tomas Berdych (Czech Republic)
World ranking 6.
Grand Slam best Wimbledon runner-up (2010)
World Tour Finals best First appearance
Big hitter who has finally started to realise his potential, knocking out Federer at Wimbledon, though he has gone off the boil since defeat in the final there to Nadal, losing in the first round of the US Open to Michael Llodra.
David Ferrer (Spain)
World ranking 7.
Grand Slam best US Open semi-finals (2007)
World Tour Finals best Runner-up (2007)
Consistent performer who has not been out of the world's top 25 for five years but lacks the weapons to win the biggest prizes. Disappointing year in the Slams – going out in the second round in Melbourne and the third at Roland Garros.
Andy Roddick (US)
World ranking 8.
Grand Slam best US Open winner (2003)
World Tour Finals best Semi-finals (2003, 2004, 2007)
Has qualified for finals for eighth year in succession (which only Federer of the current players can beat) but has had a difficult, injury-disrupted year. In September made a disappointing second-round exit at Flushing Meadows.
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