Finishing 2011 With a Smile (Federer vs Tsonga)

You get to beat the same player in the same tournament more than once only once a year. Roger Federer, completed his first year without winning a Grand Slam since 2002 with a huge smile on his face, winning his third straight tournament to end 2011, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 to win the ATP World Tour Finals.

It was Federer’s sixth time he won the Year-End championships, making him easily the king of the indoor London tournament, a city he loves to play in, with all his Wimbledon titles and with the up and coming Olympics to be played there. But it wasn’t only his show.

Rivalries, the great ones, push sports to a different level. Federer-Nadal has been doing it for years while Nadal-Djokovic was a big part of this year’s allure, with the two meeting in two Grand Slam finals and four Masters tournaments. Federer-Tsonga was just as good this year, without the Grand Slam titles to go along with it.

It all started on the Wimbledon grass courts, not too far from the O2 Arena that held the 2011 ATP World Tour Finals. Tsonga coming back from 0-2, shattering Federer on what was a historic ocassion, later repeated by Djokovic at the US Open Semi Final. Roger Federer did blow a match point in the second set tonight (Sunday), allowing Tsonga to even the sets at 1-1. It was one of those moments when you feel Federer entering a shell and the game slipping away.

It didn’t happen, and Federer, who struggled in the second and third set with his first serve slowly found it again, meanwhile keeping Tsonga at bay with his second serve that the Frenchman found hard to handle later in the match.

Tsonga lost the mental edge he had over Federer earlier in the year after Roger thrashed him at the US Open late night special. Another two set win two weeks ago in Paris by Federer, the last Masters tournament he had to win to complete the entire series. Another win over Tsonga came in their tournament opener. Federer had no one to battle this time but himself, a battle he lost more and more as the bones grow older. Not this time.

It was Roger Federer’s 100th ATP single’s final and 70th single’s title, eventually, with a fantastic year-end finish, making it four titles for him this year. The time off he took after the US Open to clear his head and rest those aching muscles worked wonders. It seemed everyone came beat up, worn out, physically and mentally, to London. Especially Djokovic, Murray and Nadal. Rafa even spoke about the hunger that’s gone missing. Too many Djokovic matches do that to you.

That’s the Federer sepcialty, the hunger for another title, for the 18th Grand Slam, for proving he still belongs among the world’s elite. You don’t need to be a mind reader to figure out Federer’s lack of respect for Murray and Djokovic, each for his own reasons. Nadal is a different story, as this great rivalry isn’t fueled by off-court hate, which makes it even better.

For Tsonga, it’s a matter of taking the next step. He has those moments in matches when everything connects, and he’s the best in the world, the most enjoyable player to watch in the world. The athleticism, the show, the power. Too bad that he hasn’t made that next step towards consistency, the one that will get him the Grand Slam title. At 26, I’m not sure it’ll happen for him. I’ll be surprised if it does, but he’s certainly one of the players to watch out for towards 2012.

We’ll finish with Roger Federer, who enters 2012 as the hottest player in the world. I don’t think that this last month that ended 2011 necessarily means that 2012 will have us witnessing Roger Federer winning his 17th (or more) Grand Slam title. The end of the seasons means different things to different players, especially after Roger didn’t win a Grand Slam title this year.

The key will be the rest and peace of mind, his ability to stay mentally strong. Maybe less Masters tournaments and less tournaments in general. Despite his unimpressive form after the US Open, Novak Djokovic is still the player to beat in World Tennis.

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