Rafael Nadal will end the year as world No 1 and holder of three Grand Slam titles, but if the Spaniard needed any reminder that his greatest rival is far from a spent force, it came last night at the ATP World Tour Finals. Roger Federer had lost six of his previous seven matches against Nadal but got the better of him with a thrilling display of attacking tennis, winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
Victory came with a cheque for $1.63m (about £1.04m), but the psychological boost delivered to Federer may prove more significant. Nadal has been stealing Federer's thunder with increasing regularity, particularly during what has been the former world No 1's most trying season for many a year.
The 29-year-old Swiss started 2010 well enough by winning the Australian Open, but his record run of 23 successive appearances in Grand Slam semi-finals was ended by Robin Soderling in Paris and he went on to lose to Tomas Berdych in the Wimbledon quarter-finals and to Novak Djokovic in the US Open semi-finals. That would amount to a highly respectable season for anyone else, but not for a man with 16 Grand Slam titles to his name.
If victory here does not quite make up for those disappointments, it will have confirmed to Federer that he maintains the edge over Nadal on faster surfaces. Nadal still leads their head-to-head record 14-8, but 10 of his victories have been on clay.
While Nadal has adapted his game brilliantly to win Grand Slam titles on grass and hard courts, he remains vulnerable indoors. The world No 1 improved immeasurably on his performance here 12 months ago, when he did not win a set, but of his 43 titles only one has been won indoors – that came in Madrid five years ago.
Federer, in contrast, has been in top form during the autumn indoor season and peaked here with a succession of outstanding performances. He has beaten opponents ranked Nos 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 in the world, losing just one set.
The last time Federer and Nadal met in Britain was at Wimbledon two years ago, when the Spaniard won one of the greatest matches in history. Tournament organisers here could hardly have wished for a better final, particularly as the two men had met only once in the previous 18 months, Nadal having won in straight sets in Madrid this May.
A capacity crowd – more than 250,000 have attended this tournament for the second year in succession – included a host of celebrities, including Diego Maradona, who was present every day of the event.
Nadal began well enough, dropping only two points in his first three service games but from 30-0 up at 3-4 he followed a double-fault with a mishit forehand to give Federer the first sniff of a break. The Swiss took his chance with a barrage of attacking shots, hitting a big forehand down the line to create break point, which he converted with a majestic backhand cross-court winner. The world No 2, enjoying most of the crowd's support, served it out to claim the set in 32 minutes.
Federer had hardly put a foot wrong – Nadal later said he had been "unplayable" at the start – but a slack game at 1-2 in the second set handed the Spaniard his only break. In the following game, Federer slipped and fell. If that was a rarity, the sight of the Swiss sweating profusely was even more of a collectors' item. After an hour and six minutes, Nadal levelled the match, sealing the second set with a cleverly sliced cross-court backhand.
Nadal seemed to have stolen the momentum, but in the deciding set his exertions of the previous day, when he needed three hours to beat Andy Murray, seemed to take their toll. When Nadal served at 1-2 and 40-15 Federer launched another battery of attacking shots, hitting a stop-volley winner before forcing his opponent into three successive errors. The Swiss broke again before serving out the match.
"I was really happy with the way I was able to finish the season in style," Federer said afterwards. "I saved my best tennis until last."
Federer joins Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl as the only players to have won this title five times. You would not bet against him returning next year to claim the record for himself.