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Friday, November 7, 2008
Masters Cup title would be Fed's perfect ending

If you thought Roger Federer might follow Rafael Nadal's lead and pull out of the Tennis Master's Cup, you haven't been paying attention to the emerging narrative. Roger Federer has reached the same point Pete Sampras did shortly after he wrapped up his sixth straight year as the year-end No. 1 player in 1998. He's playing for history now, and there's history to be made in Shanghai.

If Federer can win the Masters Cup, he joins Sampras and Ivan Lendl, the most underrated of Open era champions, as the only men to win the year-end championship five times. That's a distinction worth pursuing, but it also raises an interesting question: Just how important is the YEC?

It's funny, but it appears to be more important for long-term purposes as a résumé item than in the here and now. Granted, Rafael Nadal has an important Davis Cup final coming up (Spain vs. Argentina, Nov. 21-23), and he's got a tender knee. And while it's hard to imagine he would skip a Grand Slam event on those grounds, the YEC falls in the crack separating majors from merely huge tournaments. It's always been this way, too, at least since the heyday of Lendl back in the late 1980s.

Back then, the YEC was known simply as the Masters, and for a long time it was played in Madison Square Garden in January (in that era, the Australian Open was the final major of the year, not the first). Thus, it was the YEC of, say, 1985, played in the early winter of 1986. The tournament received enormous media attention, and the epic battles fought by the likes of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Lendl and Bjorn Borg really elevated the event to a position rivaling that of the majors. But when the Masters ended its long run in New York (1989) and became the ATP Tour Championships, it began to lose some of its luster.

In the interim, the tournament moved from Germany (Frankfurt and Hanover) to Lisbon to the U.S. and, ultimately, Shanghai. It declined in importance, in the eyes of the players as well as the media and public. In retrospect, it seems a mistake to have moved the YEC out of a major media market, despite the wonders of television (and the lure of sponsorship dollars and sanction fees). Next year, the event will be played in London, and I'm expecting that it will enjoy increased visibility and prestige.

But Federer probably isn't thinking about that as he looks ahead to 2009. I expect he'll tailor his schedule (and enthusiasm) to focus on the majors in his drive to catch and surpass Sampras as the all-time Grand Slam singles title champ. (He's currently just one behind Pistol Pete with 13.) So this YEC looms as a watershed event, but not because he might bag his fifth YEC title -- it's because it may mark the end of his most productive, dominant phase. A win in Shanghai would provide a satisfying punctuation mark to the past four-plus years.

Federer lost his chance to equal Sampras' six straight years at No. 1 (Federer was happily working on year No. 5 when Nadal caught and passed him this summer), and that's something no player will ever get more than one chance to do. But equaling Sampras and Lendl in the overall YEC title count isn't a bad consolation prize in a year of transition.