LONDON -- Six-time champion Roger Federer secured the final spot in the semifinals of the ATP World Tour Finals, coming back to defeat Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5 on Saturday. His reward? A clash against Rafael Nadal on Sunday. For Federer, who seems to be in the process of reconciling his disappointing year, making it out of group play at the season-ending tournament was a positive development.
"Clearly the goal is always to win every tournament," he said. "But I think I had to be slightly more realistic in recent weeks and months. I knew that sometimes just getting a few rounds into the bag was positive."
Earlier this week, a tournament program sold a Federer day match as "An Afternoon of Elegance," but his week at the O2 Arena has been anything but effortless. A grittier Federer replaced the days of comfortable, easy, perfunctory displays of showmanship en route to victory. He's been muttering a lot to himself. His brow has been stuck in a seemingly permanent furrow, and I've lost count as to how many times an inexplicably errant shot has been followed by an angry shake of the head or an exasperated look to the heavens.
In a round-robin match against Novak Djokovic, he battled back to steal a second-set tiebreaker, only to fizzle in the third set and lose. His straight-set win over Richard Gasquet wasn't as convincing as the 6-4, 6-3 scoreline would indicate. And against del Potro he looked lost at times, falling behind 1-5 in the first set, 1-3 in the second set and 0-3 in the third set, yet came back every time to close the gap and pressure his bigger-hitting opponent, who struggled with his own consistency. Both men looked weary after three straight weeks of play, but Federer was able to fight through it.
"I was really getting angry at myself [after falling behind 0-3 in the third set], how I could just play a loose game, why is this happening," Federer said. "I'm trying to focus so hard for it not to happen, and it did."
As the match began, Federer struggled with his rhythm off the ground. His net play bailed him out, particularly in the second set. After getting an early break, del Potro threw in a bad service game to let Federer get back on serve. With a few vintage backhand stab volleys, Federer crept back to run away with the tiebreaker, 7-2. He went into the third set 17-for-20 at the net. Despite an early wobble in the third set where he was broken in his first service game, he seemed to regain his confidence.
"I wasn't in many of his service games, so I kind of felt like probably I will get one more chance to break back," Federer said. "It's exactly what happened. Once on even terms, I was able to play a little bit more freely."
He found his forehand just in time and his scrambling defense out wide put just enough pressure on del Potro to earn some key misses. Federer covered his forehand wide as well as he has all year. Earlier this week, Djokovic said he thought Federer had lost a step this year, but as Saturday's match progressed, his speed and rhythm got better.
"He [played] great when I was up in the score, and he deserved to come back in both sets," del Potro said. "But in the end, when you have to be focused and find the winners, I made the mistakes, and he was there really focused to take the chance."
Said Federer: "I think it's one of those matches he probably should have closed out, [but I] found a way. I also played actually good tennis coming back into the match."
On Sunday, Federer will face Nadal for the 32nd time. Nadal leads the head-to-head 21-10 but Federer is 4-0 on indoor hard courts, with all four wins coming at the World Tour Finals. When a reporter recalled that indoor stat, Federer effectively shrugged. He knows how well Nadal has played this season and that his own play has been too unpredictable. Federer will have less than 24 hours to recover for the match.
"I just have to have the right mindset to give it one last go, maybe play with a little less pressure than I have in previous matches maybe with him," Federer said. "I just feel like I need to look at it more as being an underdog a little bit because of circumstances, because of my year, because of his year. Maybe that free swinging is what I kind of need to do a little bit more tomorrow."
Djokovic will meet Stanislas Wawrinka in the other semifinal. They have played two memorable matches this year, a five-set thriller at the Australian Open and another five-setter at the U.S. Open. Djokovic won both, as well as an easy 6-1, 6-4 victory last week in the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters. Like Federer, making the semifinals was a major accomplishment for Wawrinka, who was the seventh qualifier but was able to advance with victories over No. 3 David Ferrer and No. 6 Tomas Berdych. This marks the first time two players from Switzerland have made the semifinals at the World Tour Finals.
Reflecting on his fantastic season, Wawrinka couldn't point to one specific thing he's doing better to mark his improvement.
"When you win, you get more confident, so you feel better on the court," he said after defeating Ferrer. "When I feel good physically, I can play better tennis, so technically I'm much better."
Djokovic, the defending champion, is going for his 20th straight since the U.S. Open. He has looked motivated all week. The Serb has won 13 consecutive matches against Wawrinka dating to 2006. But Wawrinka says he believes he can beat anyone when he steps on the court, a clear change from his confidence in the past.
"I think tennis, it's more than one thing," he said. "It's like a puzzle. You have to put all the pieces together. That's what happened for me this year." Prediction: Nadal and Djokovic in straight sets.