Rafael Nadal can still finish his season in a blaze of team glory in Spain's Davis Cup final against Argentina in Seville next weekend, but the light went out on the world No 2's individual campaign here last night.
Having looked below par ever since losing his sixth successive final to Novak Djokovic at the US Open, the 25-year-old Spaniard was never among the favourites for this week's Barclays ATP World Tour Finals and duly went out of the year-ending championships when beaten 7-6, 4-6, 6-3 by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman joins Roger Federer and David Ferrer in tomorrow's semi-final line-up, which will be completed by Novak Djokovic or Tomas Berdych following their concluding round-robin matches today.
Nadal will finish the year as world No 2, is French Open champion and has reached the final of the last three Grand Slam tournaments, but he is ending the season a significantly weaker force than he started it. Having looked washed out and vulnerable all week, he said after last night's defeat that his forehand had lacked bite and that he had been too slow and too anxious. Most surprisingly, he admitted he had played with "a little bit less passion for the game" in recent months because of tiredness.
Tsonga, whose joy was evident in his leap of triumph at the finish, had already beaten Nadal once in London this year, at Queen's Club in June, but this victory had more in common with the only other occasion when the world No 6 has got the better of him.
Just as he did when sweeping Nadal aside for the loss of only seven game in the 2008 Australian Open semi-finals, Tsonga charged into the net behind his bold serves and ground stokes to hit some dazzling volleys, either punched towards the baseline or dropped over the net with a softness of touch that belied his strapping frame.
Tsonga failed to convert the only two break points of the first set but won it by taking the tie-break 7-2, finishing off with a smart volley and an ace. The Frenchman handed Nadal the second set with a loose game when he served at 4-5, but quickly took command of the decider. Despite being broken when serving for the match at 5-2, he promptly broke Nadal to love in the next game to seal victory.
With Nadal and the injured Andy Murray already out, the last member of the world's top three could also be on his way home tonight. Even if Djokovic beats Janko Tipsarevic this afternoon, Berdych will make the semi-finals if he beats Ferrer in straight sets in the evening.
Federer, who had already booked his place in the last four, played his final group match yesterday against Mardy Fish, who was out of contention after two successive losses. Spectators might have feared a less than competitive match, but there was still plenty at stake as Federer won 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
The 200 ranking points for each round-robin win may have been _uppermost in Federer's mind. He is now just 110 points away from reclaiming the No 3 spot from Murray, which he would do by reaching the final. With 400 points for a semi-final victory and another 500 for winning the final, Federer would earn 1,500 ranking points if he wins the title.
The financial rewards reflect the tournament's standing as the year's most important outside the four Grand Slam events. If Federer wins he will collect $1.63m (about £1.05m) in prize money, just short of the $1.8m (£1.16m) Djokovic won with his US Open triumph two months ago.
Fish meanwhile left the tournament $120,000 (£77,000) better off, despite losing all three matches. He will also head for the airport with luggage containing 10 personalised towels, which were one of the little luxuries provided for the players. They will be a reminder to the Los Angeles resident of his week among the elite.
"We have a lot of bath towels and pool towels for LA," Fish said. "We've taken a lot of pictures. We've taken the shower door, the mirror. No, only joking. But I've taken a lot of towels."
The 29-year-old American has not been at his best in London, his preparations having been hampered by a hamstring injury, but he is determined to qualify for the event again. "It's like flying first class," he said. "You don't know what you're missing until you fly it once. Then you don't ever want to leave."
Federer will enter the final weekend as the outstanding favourite. He has been so relaxed that he took up Thierry Henry's invitation to accompany him to Arsenal's Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday. "I enjoyed it," Federer said of Arsenal's 2-1 win. "I was able to go down on the pitch, go in the locker room, meet the players. They were extremely happy. It was nice for me to see some English football."