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Federer forced to take defeat on chin

Call it the curse of the sponsor. After 10 days in which Thierry Henry and Tiger Woods, his fellow Gillette-endorsers, both made the news bulletins for less than welcome reasons, Roger Federer was beaten here yesterday by an opponent he normally sweeps aside with the effort he puts into his morning shave.

Federer had dropped just four sets in beating Nikolay Davydenko in all 12 of their previous encounters, but in the semi-finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals it was the 28-year-old Russian who came out on top. Davydenko won 6-2 4-6 7-5 to earn a place in today's final, in which he will face Juan Martin del Potro, who beat Robin Soderling 6-7 6-3 7-6.

After a week in which three of the world's top four players failed to make the semi-finals – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all fell at the round-robin stage – Federer's defeat was hardly what the tournament wanted. But the final was a sell-out long ago and the event has been a huge success on its first visit to London, whoever takes home the winner's cheque for $1.5m (£910,000).

Davydenko is hardly a pauper, but winning here would make more of a difference to his bank balance than to Federer's. While sponsors flock to the world No 1's door, the Russian, one of the most unfashionable and low-profile players ever to reach the top of his sport, has always struggled to attract commercial support.

About the only time he has become a focus of media attention was during a betting controversy involving one of his matches two years ago. One betting exchange voided all bets on the match, in which Davydenko retired with an injury against the unfancied Martin Vassallo Arguello, who was heavily backed by punters. No charges were brought against either player.

The current world No 7 and former world No 3, Davydenko has won 18 titles. He reached the final of this event last year, losing to Djokovic. He is one of the quickest players around the court – there were gasps of disbelief from the crowd when he won a point after successfully chasing down a drop shot that looked a certain winner – and returns serve superbly. An aggressive baseliner, he is not afraid to attack the net when the opportunity arises and can wear opponents down with the sheer consistency of his game.

But a close contest hardly seemed on the cards after the first six points, which all went to Federer. Davydenko, back on court only 15 hours after securing his place in the semi-finals with a hard-fought victory over Soderling on Friday night, barely got a racket on the ball in Federer's first service game. It was over in little more than a minute.

Federer had two break points in the next game but Davydenko, quickly putting his game together, held on and promptly raced into a 4-1 lead. With Federer struggling to find rhythm on his serve and his forehand misfiring badly, Davydenko took the first set in just half an hour.

It was the fourth match in succession here in which Federer had lost the first set. The Swiss picked up his game in the second set but Davydenko did not look in any trouble until four missed forehands when he served at 4-5 enabled Federer to level the match. The crowd, who had given Federer great support all week, roared their approval. The fan who came armed with a banner saying he had flown 3,000 miles to see "King Roger" must have been relieved.

The deciding set looked likely to follow an identical pattern to the second when Federer went within two points of victory as Davydenko served at 4-5 and 0-30, but the latter stood firm and broke in the next game. Federer forced one break-back point but Davydenko saved it with a forehand cross-court winner and completed his victory as Federer netted a forehand.

Federer will not dwell too long on the defeat. He will, after all, have other good memories of a season in which he has finished as the year-end No 1, won the French Open and Wimbledon, surpassed Pete Sampras's all-time record of 14 Grand Slams, married and become the father of twins.

"Sure, it's disappointing," he said. "Coming so far in a tough group, in a tough tournament, I had hopes to get through to the final and maybe win, but I missed the start again and in the end that's what cost me the match."

Del Potro lost to Murray in his first match here but has since shown great resilience. Against Soderling he fought back after a poor first set tie-break and going a break down in the decider. Should he win today the Argentinian will replace Murray as world No 4.