Roger Federer will look to put his ATP Finals back on track on Tuesday when he faces Matteo Berrettini in a must-win battle after his straight-sets defeat to Dominic Thiem on Sunday. A defeat will almost certainly end his hopes of closing his season with a seventh Finals victory.
All is not lost for the 38-year-old. Through long periods in both sets against Thiem, Federer’s serve was purring and his forehand penetrated the court with ease. His problem was simply that as the Austrian thrived in most contentious moments and in the heat of the battle, Federer’s game crumbled under pressure.
He will also take some solace from the fact he finds himself in a similar position to last year, when he lost to Kei Nishikori in an abysmal opening match. The Swiss’s level in his error-strewn defeat offered few positives but he responded by beating Thiem and Kevin Anderson to reach the semi-final.
Part of the reason why Federer continues to thrive is because while older athletes become trapped in old ways, he has shown a rare adaptability throughout his career. As he looked ahead to his next match and felt his fresh legs beneath him, he was comforted by how well he had prepared himself for these moments.
“I said in an interview earlier this week, for me it’s actually been easier later on in the season nowadays than it has been at the beginning of my career where you just go all out all the time. Then towards the end you’re sort of running out of steam and you just can’t wait to go on the beach. I don’t feel that way because [now] I take enough breaks throughout the season.”
Freshness will be essential for the Swiss as he faces one of the breakthrough players of the year. Berrettini, at 6ft 5in, is a prototype of the modern big hitter, with a huge serve and a blistering forehand. The 23-year-old Italian is a late bloomer, having trailed far behind his contemporaries throughout his youth and professional career until he closed the gap this year, reaching the US Open semi-final and scaling the top 10.
“I’m really proud because I wasn’t that great when i was younger, 18, 19. I mean, I got my first ATP point at 19,” he said, smiling. “These guys, at 19 maybe they were already top 10. I’m kind of late, but I wasn’t feeling the pressure. I was just enjoying what I was doing and maybe that’s the secret because I am here.”
Though the big three continue their dominance over the biggest tournaments, the youngsters are assembling. The most surprising aspect of Thiem’s victory was not that he won, but how normal the spectacle was. Thiem is well into his physical peak at 26 and he is an established top player enjoying the best year of his career. He has now beaten Federer three times this year. It is no longer a big surprise when Federer falls to a younger player, it simply makes logical sense.
If the first half of the Swiss’s career was defined by his unparalleled dominance, his latter years reflect how he has learned to accept those defeats with perspective and continue to grant himself new opportunities to succeed. On Tuesday afternoon in the O2 Arena against Berrettini, he will do so again.