Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Tennis [Print without images]

Sunday, November 10, 2013
Updated: November 11, 9:52 AM ET
Nadal closer to completing résumé

By Matt Wilansky
ESPN.com

The numbers are staggering. One-hundred thirty-seven titles, 30 Grand Slams and 409 weeks as the top-ranked players in the world between them. The amount of history Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have created is enough to fill all 20,000 seats in London's O2 Arena -- and then some.

But the great irony is that with all the records, trophies and milestones, there really is nothing new in this story of storied rivals.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal is one win away from winning his first ATP World Tour championship.
For the 22nd time in 32 career meetings and for the fourth time this season, it was Nadal who cracked a few too many crosscourt forehand winners and converted too many key points in a 7-5, 6-3 win over Federer to reach the final of the ATP World Tour Finals.

It's only fitting that Nadal, who has dominated the tour for most of the season with 10 titles since coming back from a seven-and-a-half-month hiatus after knee surgery, will be playing in the final match of the season. And now he has a chance to write in the final piece of what is an already sprawling résumé.

In five previous trips to the year-end championships, Nadal has never won. The quick, low-bouncing surface of the indoor hard-court season has never been conducive to Nadal's grind-it-out game. But this has been a very different year for Nadal. Starting in late July, Nadal swept the summer with wins in Montreal, Cincinnati and then the US Open -- a feat that reignited his place in history and one that officially recognized him as an elite all-court player.

"For me, [it] means a lot every match," Nadal told reporters afterward. "Means a lot every tournament. Is true that this tournament is special and I never had the chance to win here. So will be great if any year I have the chance to finish the year with a victory."

Nadal made subtle but eminently effective changes when the hard-court season began. He crept a little closer to the baseline and took the ball on the rise more frequently. The amount of energy and lateral movement that have aided Nadal to a record eight French Open titles were something of an impediment on quicker surfaces. Players like David Ferrer, Andy Murray and even lesser-knowns like Ivan Dodig had figured out how to expose Nadal off clay in the past.

That's not the case anymore. After Nadal beat Federer on Sunday, ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, who called the match, said this was as good as he's ever seen Nadal look on an indoor court.

In 2010, Nadal won his first four matches at the ATP World Tour Finals before falling to Federer in the final. But this time around, the Spaniard's considerable lefty topspin and potent kick serve (he won 69 percent of second serves) proved to be too much.

"Every year is different," Nadal said. "Is very difficult to say or make comparisons between years. I never did. Anyway, most important thing for me is in the toughest surface for me to play, most difficult one, for me was able to win four matches against top-eight players. That's a great new [accomplishment] for me. Is a very good way to finish the year."

Nadal is now an astounding 75-6 this season and 36-3 on hard courts. According to the ATP, he improved to 24-4 against top-10 opponents in 2013.

For Federer, the question now becomes, will we ever see him back here again? He owns a record six championships at the year-enders, but this was the worst year since 2002. Federer won one title and reached only a solitary Grand Slam semifinal, in Australia. At Wimbledon, Federer suffered an improbable four-set loss to journeyman Sergiy Stakhovsky -- who was ranked 116th at the time -- before falling to two other players outside the top 50 during an experimental summer swing on clay. And then Federer capped off a frustrating Slam season by losing to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round in New York.

It looked like age had finally caught up for the all-time Slam King. He fell outside the top five for the first time since 2003 and was perilously close to missing the ATP World Tour Finals. Only the top eight players (in this case top nine with Murray's absence) make the field. But Federer played well down the stretch, reaching the Paris Masters semifinals and solidifying his place in London.

As bad as things were for Federer, he did play impressively at the O2 Arena this week. After dropping his opening round-robin match to Novak Djokovic, Federer dumped Richard Gasquet in straight sets and then showed some serious aplomb in coming back to beat Juan Martin del Potro on Saturday -- a match in which the Swiss star was down a break in the third set.

"For me I was happy I was able to play Basel, Paris, here in London, through extremely tough conditions with a lot of running, tennis, traveling, so forth," Federer said. "From that standpoint, I'm very pleased. You know, just again beating two top-10 players is a good thing for me after not having beaten any for almost seven or eight months. Considering the back issues I've had, I'm pleased that I'm pain-free for a long period of time now with a lot of tennis. That's definitely also going to give me confidence physically and also mentally."

Nadal will now play Djokovic in the grand final of 2013. And the Spaniard is keenly aware he can't let up now.

"I think the tournament is important one," Nadal said. "So to be able to win the final is much more important than any victory against any opponent."