When Andy Roddick was asked before last year's end-of-season championships about Roger Federer's "average year" he turned on his questioner. "All I know is that if someone calls Roger average they had better be really, really, really good at what they do," Roddick said. "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."
As the game's best players prepared for this year's finale – the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals begin today at London's O2 Arena – it was Federer's turn to respond to questions about Rafael Nadal, who has not won a title for six months and spent a frustrating summer nursing knee and stomach injuries.
"I don't think anyone should exaggerate and say Rafa has had a terrible year," Federer said. "He had an incredible first five months of the year. He dominated the first part of the year. I don't think his year has been that tough, although, on a personal level, I heard what happened there, with his parents' divorce.
"From a tennis point of view, OK he missed Wimbledon, but apart from that it's been OK. He won the Australian Open and he has a chance to finish the year as world No 1, which doesn't seem like a horrible scenario to have."
Nadal's last tournament victory came at the Rome Masters in May. His world was turned on its head four weeks later when he was beaten at the French Open – for the first time in 32 matches at Roland Garros – by Robin Soderling, whom he meets again tomorrow. It will be Nadal's first competitive match in Britain this year after he missed Queen's Club and Wimbledon because of tendinitis in his knees.
Nadal says his fitness is now "perfect". Since starting his comeback in August at the Montreal Masters, where he reached the quarter-finals, the world No 2 has reached four semi-finals and one final. Although he has not won a tournament, he points out that this is not his favourite time of the year. "Everyone knows that hard courts aren't my best surface, but I've been doing better in this part of the season than ever before," Nadal said. "Last year I lost in the semi-finals in Madrid and the quarter-finals in Paris. This year I got to the final in Shanghai and the semi-finals in Paris. I've been playing more tournaments at this stage of the year than in the past.
"I know some people look at my record and say I haven't won a tournament for months, but I look at it differently. I look at what I've done in the past and see I've improved. I'm doing much better than I expected when I started my comeback in Montreal. I didn't expect to be competitive in every tournament, but I could have won every tournament I've played."
Nevertheless, the suspicion remains that Nadal is not quite the force of nature he was during his annus mirabilis in 2008. It may be down to the ditching of his sleeveless shirts, but he looks less muscular and intimidating. His recent results are also open to a different interpretation to his own: in Paris, Tommy Robredo and Nicolas Almagro should both have beaten him, while Novak Djokovic appeared to win their semi-final with some ease.
The Spaniard may find it hard to progress beyond the round-robin stage in London. Nikolay Davydenko and Djokovic have beaten him in the last two Masters Series tournaments, while Soderling will be buoyed by his win at the French Open.
Nadal's group may well prove the tougher of the two. Federer, who plays Fernando Verdasco tonight, and Andy Murray, who meets Juan Martin del Potro in the opener, are favourites to emerge from the other section.
Roger Federer (Switzerland)
Has won title four times but does he still have the hunger after such a successful and emotional year?
Strengths: forehand, variety of serve, coolness under pressure
Weaknesses: impatience, can be frustrated by baseliners
Andy Murray (GB)
Returned from injury lay-off to win Valencia Open a fortnight ago. Refreshed and hungry for success in front of home crowd.
Strengths: backhand, returns, speed
Weaknesses: forehand, occasionally over-cautious approach
Juan Martin del Potro (Argentina)
Won US Open but has done little since. He looks and sounds exhausted.
Strengths: forehand, improved serve
Weaknesses: lack of variety, volleys
Fernando Verdasco (Spain)
Made progress after working on fitness, reaching Australian Open semi-final.
Strengths: forehand, serve
Weaknesses: inconsistency, strategy
Rafael Nadal (Spain)
Still well short of best after lay-offs with knee and stomach injuries. Next month's Davis Cup final is bigger goal.
Strengths: heavily top-spun
forehand, never-say-die attitude
Weaknesses: serve, sliced backhand
Novak Djokovic (Serbia)
In-form, with only three defeats in last 30 matches, but might run out of gas after mammoth season.
Strengths: all-court game, consistency
Weaknesses: volleys, defensiveness
Nikolay Davydenko (Russia)
Has recovered from early-season injury problems. Reached final last year.
Strengths: speed around court, returns, consistency
Weaknesses: serve, lack of power
Robin Soderling (Sweden)
Earned debut in finals as first reserve after Andy Roddick's withdrawal. Good record on indoor courts.
Strengths: forehand, serve
Weaknesses: mobility, shortage of big-match experience
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