Federer’s list of titles this year is already extraordinary – Melbourne, Indian Wells, Miami, Halle, Wimbledon, Shanghai, Basel – and he is well placed to add another after his three-set victory over 20-year-old Alexander Zverev on Tuesday, which made him the first man into Saturday’s semi-finals. Understandably, the fans at the O2 Arena continue to treat him like a minor deity, for even at 36 years old he plays with more verve and insouciance than anyone else.
Zverev was Federer’s highest-ranked rival in the Boris Becker Group, and also one of only four men to beat him all season. Yet that result – which dates back to the final of the Rogers Cup in Montreal – should come with an asterisk attached. Federer tweaked his back during the match and was badly enough affected to spend the next couple of weeks resting up, thus disrupting his preparation for the US Open.
Tuesday’s odds were stacked differently, because Federer has an extraordinary record at the O2 Arena. He is appearing in this end-of-season event for the 15th time, and has only once failed to get out of the group stages. Plus, he loves playing under a roof, which favours his pure ball-striking talent. Against a powerful but slightly predictable rival like Zverev, he was able to mix up the rhythm of play by tossing in drop shots and rushing the net.
In these pacy conditions, the Federer serve is ferociously difficult to handle, and he has dropped just a single service game in his two matches to date. That came last night, and ended up costing him the second set. But as the players entered the decider, it was the younger man who buckled. The Zverev forehand broke down badly, and Federer pounced to complete a 7-6, 5-7, 6-1 win.
“It was a tough battle,” said Federer afterwards. “I am relieved that in the last match I can play freely against [Marin] Cilic who I played in the Wimbledon final a few months back.
“It has been a tough group so to get through in two matches is great and now I can maybe work on my game a little bit – but I am going to try and win of course.
“I was trying to put a lot of balls into play so there was a lot of defending going on tonight but it paid off so I am extremely happy. I am very excited for his future. He is a wonderful guy and a great, great player.”