Roger Federer's decisive 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Rafael Nadal in the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals will inevitably be accompanied by a rash of "Roger's back!" stories. They'll point to Federer's 17-2 record after the U.S. Open, his destruction of Novak Djokovic in Basel and London and, of course, the win over his archrival in London, a match in which Federer played some of his best tennis in years and unleashed a wicked topspin backhand that will surely become part of his repertoire next season.
But is Roger really back? Or was he never too far gone to begin with?
In winning his fifth WTF final, Federer denied Nadal his first. The world No. 1 made his way to the finals after a marathon victory over Andy Murray on Saturday, and his fatigue was evident as this match made its way into the third set. For Nadal, it was a disappointing finish to his best season as a professional, but was a vast improvement over his performance in last year's year-end championships, where he was ousted after the round-robin and failed to win a single set.
As the players head into the short offseason, Federer looks poised to make another run at the No. 1 ranking and to extend his lead over Nadal in Grand Slams. Since working with Paul Annacone, Federer has subtly tweaked his game by shortening points and playing a more offensive game. It's paid off.
But Federer's recent resurgence didn't come out of nowhere. When everyone said Federer was falling off, that only meant he wasn't keeping up the historic run of tennis he had from 2004 to 2008. This year was thought of as a disappointment. He fell to No. 3 for a time, he didn't win a tournament from February until August, he lost to guys like Albert Montanes and Ernest Gulbis. Yet Federer won a Grand Slam, earned five titles and played more matches after the U.S. Open than he has in years. Sure, it was an off-year, but only when compared with the unprecedented heyday Federer had in his prime.
A win over Nadal doesn't mean Federer is back. It means that the rivalry is, once again, on.