LONDON -- For the third time this season, Roger Federer saved match points en route to a win, this time besting his Davis Cup teammate Stan Wawrinka 4-6, 7-5 7-6 (6) to advance to the championship match at the ATP World Tour Finals. Federer battled back from a set down and saved four match points in the third set to make his ninth final at the year-end ATP championships, where he'll face No. 1 Novak Djokovic on Sunday.
"I clearly got lucky tonight," Federer said. "There's no doubt about that. But you've got to keep believing that maybe there is a slight chance that you are going to be able to turn it around somehow. It happened today."
There was nothing but a small fistpump and look to his box after Federer stuck a forehand drop-volley winner to clinch the win after 2 hours and 48 minutes over his compatriot. After a week of solid, even flawless play, the 33-year-old came out flat against Wawrinka. The Australian Open champion was the one firing on all cylinders in the first set, taking the offensive and leaving Federer chasing from corner to corner to cover the court.
"Today had lot of chances," Wawrinka said. "Didn't [take] them. I was playing well. I was playing good tennis. Happy the way I was trying to push him, trying to be real aggressive, not let him come to the net too much, trying to be the first there. But sometimes you [lose a] match like that."
On a court that has proven a challenge to big servers, Wawrinka fired 10 aces on the day, despite serving at a sub-40 percent clip. His percentage may have been low but Wawrinka was going big. Federer failed to win a point off Wawrinka's first serve in the initial set.
The two traded holds in the second set as Federer slowly got the match back on his own terms. He faced no break points while putting pressure on Wawrinka until he blinked in the 12th game. Wawrinka put in a poor service game to get broken at love to lose the match, with the ultimate point coming from an easy overhead into the net. "I really didn't think I was going to turn it around anymore because Stan looked very good for a long time, was able to win the second set somehow by hanging around," Federer said.
A second set highlight from Federer:
Wawrinka rebounded quickly. He broke Federer in the first game of the final set, with the help of an inaudible -- at least from Federer's point of view -- overrule from chair umpire Cedric Mourier. On the first point of the game Mourier overruled a call, but it never registered with Federer. Two points later, when Mourier announced the score at 0-40, Federer was shocked. He thought it was 15-30. Wawrinka broke and quickly consolidated the break for a 2-0 lead.
Wawrinka, who came into the match with just two career wins over Federer, continued to hold his serve until he served for the match at 5-4. He earned match points at 40-30 and twice again after Federer was able to get the game to deuce, but Federer saved all three and eventually broke to level the match. Federer saved one match point with a fantastic forehand winner down the line. But on the other three match points Wawrinka repeatedly tried to serve and volley, twice behind a kicking second serve. He was 21 for 39 at the net in the match but the decision-making on when to attack late in the third set, whether a result of nerves or all-out risk, was questionable. Federer on the other hand went 24 for 37 at the net, but his timing on when to employ the tactic was perfect. As the match grew tighter, Federer forced the issue at the net and it paid off.
"Match like that, you make some choices, especially when you're tired, when you're nervous," Wawrinka said. "Just wanted to go for it and not wait for a mistake or whatever, because you know that could give you the match."
The two swapped two tense service games to force a tiebreak and this time it was Wawrinka who was forced to play from behind. Wawrinka trailed 2-4 but got it back to 5-all before he earned his fourth match point at 6-5. Federer saved it and won the next two points to secure the win. It was the third time this season Federer had saved match points en route to victory. He saved two match points against Gael Monfils at the U.S. Open and five match points just last month to beat Leonardo Mayer at the Shanghai Masters.
"This was maybe luckier than Monfils because Stan served three times and whereas Monfils served twice," Federer said. "Mayer, I was crazy lucky there. So maybe that was the most luck overall because I was out of the point and he had it."
Federer finished the match with 25 winners to 26 unforced errors. Wawrinka hit 43 winners to 48 unforced errors. Stuck on defense for much of the match, Federer was was astonished he was able to pull it out. "I'm happy we're able to play such a good match," Federer said. "Maybe not always the best quality, but still I was very impressed by his shotmaking again, his capabilities of playing forward, just keep on going. I think if he would have served a little bit better today he would have won probably."
Federer was still finishing his press obligations at 1 a.m., which means he'll have less than 17 hours to recover for Sunday's final against Djokovic at 6 p.m. Djokovic earned his spot in his third straight year-end final with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-0 win over Kei Nishikori earlier in the afternoon. Federer has won the tournament a record six times, while Djokovic is trying to become the first man since Ivan Lendl to win it three years in a row. After running Federer around the court for nearly three hours late Saturday night, Wawrinka gave the edge in Sunday's final to Djokovic.
"We'll see how physically Roger will be tomorrow for sure, because Novak is really strong," he said. "Didn't spend so much energy." Djokovic qualified for the semifinals by losing just nine games in group play, setting an ATP record.
Federer goes into the final with a 19-17 lead in their head-to-head and winning three of their five meetings this season. Djokovic won their biggest meeting of the season in the Wimbledon final, winning 6-7(7), 6-4, 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-4, while Federer won their most recent match 6-4, 6-4 in the Shanghai semifinals. With the conditions slower in London, Federer will have to be at his best physically to challenge the Serb, who is on a 31-match indoor win streak and has been playing near-flawless tennis off the ground. The two have met three times at the ATP Finals, with Djokovic winning their last two matches at the O2 Arena in 2013 (round robin) and 2012 (final).
"I think we might see a bit different rallies, not so easy just to go big," Federer said. "But obviously I got to be confident moving forward. I got to be there to challenge him and make him hit one good shot after another."
Djokovic may have spent less time on court this week, but he admitted after his semifinal win that the long season has taken its toll.
"Honestly, today I found it a little bit difficult mentally to stay concentrated throughout the whole match," he said. "After the emotional three matches I had, especially yesterday when I achieved the goal to finish as No. 1 of the world, knowing that, I felt a little bit flat emotionally today."
He lashed out at the crowd, who cheered his errors in the second set, and let it get under his skin.
"I should have let it go," a contrite Djokovic said. "But when you tolerate once, twice, three times, four times, we're all humans, you react." He will surely be up against a pro-Federer crowd on Sunday.
While Federer still has the Davis Cup final to contend with in one week, Sunday will be Djokovic's last match of the season.
"Of course at this stage of the season, of the tournament, mentally, the truth is that I'm exhausted," Djokovic said. "But knowing just that tomorrow is the last match of the season, I'm sure that I will find any necessary drop of strength, mental and physical, to give it on the court."