Sitting in front of Roger Federer while he speaks about the size of Jack Sock’s bum is not what anyone expected from day one of the ATP Finals in London on Sunday.
Yet two decades into his career, Federer is still able to surprise us and that was certainly an interesting curveball.
In the seventh game of the first set during Federer’s opener against Sock, the two opponents came face to face up at the net, with the former having an open shot on his forehand for the pass winner.
Knowing there wasn’t much he could do to cover the net, Sock simply turned around and bent over, and his tactic worked as Federer netted his passing shot attempt.
— doublefault28 (@doublefault28) November 12, 2017
“It was a big distraction, I’ll tell you that, because it was very big,” Federer said, sending the room into laughter.
“That’s what I should have aimed for. That target was bigger than the down-the-line court that I had. It’s happened sometimes in the past, but not on a big stage like this.”
Sock explained himself in his press conference saying: “I did it more for fun. Probably do it three times a year. No, it’s not a normal tactic.”
Federer claimed a 6-4, 7-6 (4) win over Sock to claim his 50th victory of the season and begin his assault on a seventh ATP Finals title with routine success.
BEST OF FRENEMIES
Meanwhile, a suited-up Rafael Nadal received his year-end world No.1 trophy on centre court after Federer’s win.
Federer was in contention for the year-end top ranking up until a couple of weeks ago, but his withdrawal from the Paris Masters gave way for Nadal to grab it himself.
Even though he would have wanted to be the one receiving that trophy, Federer was happy to stick around and celebrate Nadal’s achievement on Sunday.
“I was supposed to do the Sky interview afterwards, and they wanted to talk to me about the tactical element of the match. The Rafa trophy presentation was going on. They said, ‘Is it okay to wait?’
“I said, ‘Well, yeah, I better wait because this is a big deal. This is a huge thing’.”
What a special kind of rivalry those two share!
Nadal rocketed up to No.1 in the world after winning two Grand Slams in 2017 and has regained his top form to end the season at the summit of the rankings.
Still, that dream year has winded down to a tricky situation, where Nadal is dealing with a right knee injury that is denting his chances at this week’s ATP Finals.
The 31-year-old Mallorcan believes he will be ready to contest his first match against David Goffin on Monday, but the build-up to that showdown has undoubtedly been filled with stressful times in the Nadal camp, as they attempt to manage his injury while preparing him for a tournament that will pit him against the world’s very best from the get-go and an event he has never won before.
Sport360 sat down with Nadal’s coach and ex-world No.1 Moya at the O2 in London to discuss the current mood in the team, his first year with the 16-time Grand Slam champion and more.
How has it been for the team in the build-up to this event? Has it been stressful with the injury or have you all been able to stay calm through it?
Well, trying to… being the last event of the year, we know that things are not easy, it’s been a long year, not just for him, but for all the other players. Obviously we had to change plans in terms of practice. But he’s playing well. It’s the last effort. He achieved his goals, he finished No.1 in the world, so in that part there is no stress but otherwise he wants to compete, try to win this event, but overall it’s okay.
What’s Rafa like in these situations? If he’s injured, would he still try to go all out in practice and you and Toni have to ask him to slow down? Or is he more careful and cautious?
He’s learning to be careful, he’s listening to his body more than before and probably if this was the beginning of the year and another tournament he wouldn’t play. It’s the last tournament, it’s the Masters Cup… he’s listening more and more and he has to.
He has never won the ATP Finals before and he mentioned the other day that the tournament always being played on indoor hard court is a factor in that. Do you think Rafa can beat all those top rivals on this surface?
Of course he can. He probably beat all of them during his career in these conditions. So I don’t know exactly why in the past he wasn’t able to win this tournament. Hopefully this is the last year where he hasn’t been able to win here. But usually it takes for him a while to start the tournament but in the Grand Slams or other events, the first couple of rounds are guys who are outside the top-50 or top-70, here the first match is against a top-10 player already, so maybe that’s one of the reasons but I don’t know exactly.
This is my first year with him in the team. Try to always analyse why things are happening but let’s see how it goes this year.
How do you feel about your first year coaching Rafa, and what have you learnt the most from it?
I think it can’t get any better than this, he won two Slams and finished No.1 in the world, it was like a dream come true. When we started at the beginning of the year that’s something I thought could happen and it actually happened. All has been achieved and that’s great.
What I’m learning, I try to learn every day being with such a tremendous player. This is my second year as a coach, trying always to be open, trying to learn. Last year I learned from Raonic and his team, this year I learned from Rafa. Even though I know him very well there is always things you get to know better.
Anything in particular that jumped at you?
The mentality he has, that never giving up attitude, I don’t think he gave up not even one point this year, so that’s something that you rarely see in all the other players, how he’s able to turn things around when he’s in trouble, that thing still amazes me. I don’t know if you can teach that or a player can learn that but it’s something, after what I’ve seen all these years, it keeps me really amazed what he’s doing.
This year may have been dominated by two all-star veterans – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – but the next two players in line, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, are from the younger generation the tennis world has been waiting for.
It seems fitting that Federer and Zverev have landed in the same group. One is a 36-year-old six-time champion at the event. The other is a 20-year-old making his tournament debut. The contrast is huge yet they are 1-1 head-to-head this season and 2-2 overall.
Zverev grew up idolising Federer and met the Swiss when he was just five years-old asking him for an autograph at the Hamburg Masters. Today, they are peers in the Group Boris Becker at a tournament celebrating the eight best players of the season.
The world No.3 remains in awe of Federer, who took his tally of Grand Slam finals to 19 this season by winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon, despite missing six months of action at the end of last year due to injury.
Nadal has also won two majors in 2017, and returned to No.1 in the world rankings.
“I think Roger and Rafa have been playing the best tennis of their lives this year. I really think that, especially Roger,” said Zverev, who won the Rome Masters by beating Novak Djokovic in the final, and Montreal by defeating Federer.
“He’s only lost four matches this year. It’s quite amazing how he’s able to play at 36 years-old; I’m not saying he’s old or anything.
“What he’s doing on the tennis court is amazing.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) November 11, 2017
“Also Rafa, how he came back and played the clay-court season was unbelievable. The most he lost in a set in the French Open was three games. Winning a Grand Slam losing three games in a set, max, is something that I don’t know if we’ve seen before.
“All of us are working hard to try to replace them a little bit.
“This is what we’re all working for, to win the biggest tournaments in the world. I’ve won two Masters this year. I’m still working on Grand Slams.
“At the moment what they’re doing on the tennis court is amazing.”
Federer could not compete in London last year as he was out of action with physical problems and he won the last of his six titles at the event in 2011.
The Swiss started the year ranked 17 in the world due to his extended break in 2016 but stunningly claimed the Australian Open on his first official tournament back.
“Last year I couldn’t be here so it’s nice to be able to do it again because this year I had to start further back in the rankings,” said Federer on Friday.
“The early goal was to be maybe halfway point, before or after Wimbledon, around eight in the world or something but that was always going to maybe put me in an interesting situation for the rest of the year trying to qualify for the World Tour Finals.
“So by winning the Australian Open, pretty much I was in a good position throughout after that. I was very happy how I played throughout the entire season, stayed pretty much injury-free apart from the back issue in Montreal that carried over a bit but I played great and I’m very happy to be here again and get a chance to compete with the best.”
Federer begins his campaign on Sunday against ATP Finals debutant Jack Sock while Zverev takes on Wimbledon runner-up Marin Cilic.
Cilic hit a career-high ranking of No.4 in the world last month and is making his third ATP Finals appearance.
“The year has been extremely consistent for me,” said the Croatian.
“I played great tennis and I found that key in my own game to play on a good level almost every single week. I had a lot of victories in the last six, seven months that has given me good confidence, and good belief when I’m playing the top guys, which is very important here.”