Wednesday November 23rd, 2011

Roger Federer had his forehand in vintage form against Rafael Nadal on Tuesday. (Reuters)

LONDON -- Thoughts from Day 3 of the ATP World Tour Finals, where Roger Federer dismantled Rafael Nadal (much to the delight of the Swiss fans) and Andy Murray departed:

Roger rolls: A Federer victory may not have been surprising, but not even he could have anticipated the brutal beating he put on Nadal on Tuesday night. Federer cruised 6-3, 6-0 in an hour, hitting 28 winners to Nadal's four and accumulating a point differential of 54-27.

Nadal may have been suffering from the lingering effects of food poisoning, and indoor hardcourts are obviously his worst surface, particularly against Federer, who is 4-0 versus the Spaniard in such situations. Still, Nadal's timidity was unusual to see. He won 47 percent of his first-serve points and rarely was able to get the ball deep, let alone to Federer's backhand corner, a key to Nadal's 17-8 head-to-head advantage entering Tuesday.

There was no fire at all from the Spaniard and he effectively served up batting practice to one of the greatest offensive players in history. Federer flew around the court and launched himself into every forehand he got a look at, putting on a tremendous display of ball striking and footwork. He was always behind the ball, always leaning forward, and Nadal's forehand, which has driven Federer onto his back foot in the past, was actually a liability. With Nadal unable to get any consistent depth, the ball simply kicked up to be hit, and Federer wasn't missing.

"It was a great match for me basically from start to finish," Federer said after extending his winning streak to 14 matches and becoming the first player to clinch a spot in the semifinals. "I was able to do what I was hoping to do: dominate from the baseline, play close to the baseline, serve well, take his time away. ... It hasn't always worked. I also felt the power of Rafa in the past, so this is a great match for me."

Nadal wasn't right all night, but the way Federer was playing, it might not have mattered. Rafa won nine points in the second set, his first 0-6 set against Federer since 2007 and third in 26 meetings.

"When he plays like that," Nadal said, "he's better than me."

Asked about Federer's play on indoor hardcourts, Nadal said: "His level is probably higher here. All the conditions are perfect for him because the bounces are not too high. He can go inside the court with less problems than in the other surfaces. The ball doesn't move, no wind. He has the chance to attack better in these conditions than in other surfaces.

"But, look, if he plays like this in other surfaces, don't worry, he will beat me, too.  That's the [truth]."

Nadal can still qualify for the semifinals by defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Thursday, which means a Nadal-Federer final remains a possibility. But I'm not sure even Nadal would look forward to a rematch after what happened Tuesday. That was a devastating performance.

A man's got to know his limitations: It applied to Cool Hand Luke and it applies to Murray, who withdrew from the season-ending tournament after only one match. On some level, it was comforting to hear Murray admit that he may have gone too hard after the U.S. Open and that his relentless quest for victories may have contributed to the groin strain that knocked him out of the World Tour Finals. (The Scot won three consecutive titles in Asia before a late withdrawal at the Swiss Indoors and a quarterfinal loss at the Paris Masters 11 days ago.)

Murray needs to know his physical limitations and deal with them, much like the Big Three have. Federer manages his schedule with precision, and Nadal and Novak Djokovic have both pulled back (even if marginally) to create breaks in the season to allow their bodies to heal. Murray seemed to be following the same blueprint for much of 2011 and it actually paid off, allowing him to peak at the majors and have his best year. But his decision to put the pedal to the metal during the fall did him in here.

A Pyrrhic victory is still a victory: Unlike Murray, Mardy Fish had to really push to reach the World Tour Finals. He was the last man to qualify and every point he earned mattered. But playing 21 tournaments this year, and trying to play through injury in Europe to secure his spot in London, took a toll. It's unfortunate for the 29-year-old Fish that he hasn't been able to put together a consistently strong performance in the season finale (the American is 0-2 and out of semifinal contention after Tuesday's loss to Tsonga), but that doesn't diminish the achievement of making it into this elite field for the first time in his career. • Silent Swiss? Surely not: I rarely see Federer fans get rowdy. More often than not they are reserved, quiet (their "Shhh! Genius at work!" signs mandate it, after all) and politely respectful. Exuberant is not a word that ever comes to mind. So it was a pleasant surprise to see a group of 30 or so fans, decked out in Swiss flags and "RF" hats, jumping up and down and chanting outside the O2 Arena after their guy won. Don't get me wrong, it was jarring. But it was also a nice outpouring of passion after Federer's first victory against Nadal in four matches this year.

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