You might have thought the absence of Britain’s best player for three-quarters of a century would have been felt in the box office at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Not a bit of it. As the world’s leading players, with the exception of the injured Andy Murray, prepare for this week’s season-ending event in London, tickets are in as much demand as ever. Seven of the 15 sessions in the 17,500-capacity O2 Arena are already sold out and only a few thousand places remain on the other days.
Would the same have been true if Roger Federer had been missing from the cast list? It is a prospect that this tournament and many others will soon have to consider, though for this year at least London will have another chance to pay homage to the greatest player in history. The affection which the British public feel for the 32-year-old Swiss was evident when he enjoyed at least as much support as Murray when he beat the Scot in the semi-finals here 12 months ago.
However, after his least productive season for 12 years Federer faces a huge task just to qualify from his round-robin group. The current world No 6 has made the semi-finals or better in 10 of his previous 11 appearances at this event – he has won the title a record six times – but he is up against it this week.
His opponents in Group A are Novak Djokovic, who beat him in the final here last year and in the semi-finals in Paris last week, Juan-Martin del Potro, who has got the better of him three times since last summer’s Olympics, and Richard Gasquet, who has qualified for the tournament for the first time since 2007.
Federer secured his place in the elite eight-man field only last week after what has been, by his standards, a mediocre season, disrupted by back problems. He has won just one title, at the minor grass-court tournament at Halle, and reached only three finals. It has been the first year since 2002 that he has not reached a Grand Slam final and he has won just one of his last 15 Grand Slam tournaments.
What is particularly noticeable is that the other leading players appear to have got the 17-times Grand Slam champion’s number. Federer has lost eight out of his 10 matches against top 10 opponents this year, securing his only victories against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Australian Open 10 months ago and against Del Potro in Paris last week.
Even the idea that Federer has become a “flat-track bully” does not ring true any more after his defeats this year to Sergiy Stakhovsky (world No 129), Federico Delbonis (No 114), Daniel Brands (No 55), Gaël Monfils (No 42), Julien Benneteau (No 39), and Tommy Robredo (No 22).
Federer admitted yesterday that it had been a tough year. “Most of the time I was just focusing on myself to get things right in my life with my back and so forth,” he said. “Now finally that I did, I feel like it’s coming together at the right time for me. But this year has a different feel because it just hasn’t been as consistent, as good and as solid as it has been in previous years. So I’m maybe still a bit more unsure about how high my level of play has been, even though it has been pretty good the last couple of weeks.”
Having had reasonably successful weeks in Basel and Paris, making the final and semi-finals respectively, Federer has already played nine matches in the last fortnight. “I’ve won a lot of matches this last couple of weeks, but it means the next two days now are crucial,” he said. “It’s just about managing today and tomorrow. I don’t like to overtrain. But I’m happy with my game and the confidence is back again. That can carry you a long way.”
Tomas Berdych believes the change is not so much in Federer as in the standards being set by his opponents. “I wouldn’t say that Federer’s game or his level have slipped,” the Czech said yesterday. “I think it’s a matter of the rest of us catching up.
“We are improving. This is a very strong time for tennis. There are the four or five guys right at the top and the others are trying to close up on them.”
Gasquet, however, thinks physical issues have been a significant factor in Federer’s year. “It’s tough when you’re not 100 per cent physically, but now he’s coming back,” Gasquet said. “I’m sure that he can win another Grand Slam next year.”
Although Federer continues to insist that retirement is not on his agenda – he has talked about competing in the 2016 Olympics and beyond – will he want to carry on if he becomes a permanent also-ran? A poor week here might cost him his place in the world’s top eight, which could spell problems next year. If he is not seeded in the top eight at the Australian Open he would be in danger of facing the likes of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Murray before the quarter-finals.
If there have been plenty of occasions when Federer has enjoyed the luck of the draw, that does not appear to be the case this week. Of the top men, Nadal seems to have the easiest task, having been drawn against David Ferrer, Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka, who is the only player in the eight-man field making his debut in the tournament.
Nevertheless Nadal’s first match tomorrow will be against Ferrer, who beat him for the first time in 10 attempts in the semi-finals of the Paris Masters on Saturday. “I need to play better,” Nadal said when asked about the prospect of taking on his fellow countryman again just three days later. “I need to make fewer mistakes. I need to move more quickly.
“I need to practise as well. I need to work on a few things. It’s a very short period of time, but that’s what there is. There is one tournament left this year. I will try to play with a positive attitude.”
How they line up at the O2
Group A R Nadal (Sp), D Ferrer (Sp), T Berdych (Cz Rep), S Wawrinka (Swit).
Group B N Djokovic (Serb), R Federer (Swit), J-M del Potro (Arg), R Gasquet (Fr).
Group A A Qureshi (Pak) and J-J Rojer (Neth); M Fyrstenberg and M Matkowski (Pol); M Granollers and M Lopez (Sp); D Marrero and F Verdasco (Sp).
Group B A Peya (Aut) and B Soares (Br); L Paes (India) and R Stepanek (Cz Rep); B Bryan and M Bryan (US); I Dodig (Croat) and M Melo (Br).
Format: all players play three round-robin matches. Top two in each group go through to semi-finals on Sunday (final on Monday).
Monday: Midday A Qureshi and J-J Rojer v M Fyrstenberg and M Matkowski. 2pm T Berdych v S Wawrinka. 6pm M Granollers and M Lopez v D Marrero and F Verdasco. 8pm J M del Potro v R Gasquet.
Tuesday: Midday: A Peya and B Soares v L Paes and R Stepanek. 2pm R Nadal v D Ferrer. 6pm B Bryan and M Bryan v I Dodig and M Melo. 8pm R Federer v N Djokovic.