So, given these circumstances, how could one decide where to be and what to prioritize on a day which offered so much to the tennis connoisseur? Given this dilemma, I was delighted to be sitting in my home, monitoring both matches carefully on television, finding it all immensely compelling. Let’s break from customary protocol and start with the men. This was, after all, the 34th career skirmish between the singularly appealing Spaniard and the enormously popular Swiss. Nadal held a commanding 23-10 lead in the series, having carved out five consecutive victories over Federer since last losing to his revered rival in 2012 at Indian Wells.
But since that Australian Open duel with Federer early in 2014 at Melbourne, Nadal had fallen upon some hard times. To be sure, he went on that spring to capture his ninth French Open crown over Novak Djokovic, but the rest of his season was a virtual wipeout. He was out all summer after losing in the round of 16 at Wimbledon with a wrist injury, and could not defend his U.S. Open title. He played only sporadically across the autumn and never found anything remotely approaching top form. In early November, he required surgery for an appendectomy.
He did not win a major in 2014 for the first time since 2004; his run of collecting at least one Grand Slam singles for ten consecutive seasons is a men’s record. Federer, Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg all had streaks of eight years in a row, and so Nadal surpassed all of those luminaries by an impressive two year span. Be that as it may, his 2015 season was filled with misery on many levels. He failed to advance beyond the quarters of any major, and concluded his Grand Slam tournament season with a penetrating defeat at the hands of the maddening Fabio Fognini. The Italian achieved his third win over Nadal in 2015 by coming improbably from two sets to love down to oust the Spaniard. That third round U.S. Open encounter marked the first time in more than nine years that Nadal had suffered the indignity of not closing out an account from two sets up.
In many ways, Nadal has endured the largest crisis of confidence he has ever endured since reaching the upper echelons of the sport. And yet, he has been on a spirited and commendable run ever since the Open. He has played a much more consistent brand of tennis recently than at any time in his entire 2015 campaign. Nadal made it to the final of Beijing, clipping Fognini before losing to Djokovic. He went to the semifinals in Shanghai, upending Ivo Karlovic in a final set tie-break, toppling an indifferent Stan Wawrinka in the quarters, bowing in a rigorous semifinal confrontation with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the penultimate round.
In Basel, Nadal had to fight furiously in every round, but was never found wanting. In the first round, he met the recklessly brilliant Lukas Rosol, the same man who had beaten him at Wimbledon in 2012. Nadal was down and almost out of the tournament, trailing 6-1, 5-3. Rosol—performing unconsciously, playing out of his mind—served for the match at 5-4 and had 30-0. He lost the next point but, at 30-15, closed in for a backhand volley down the line, only to thoroughly bungle that shot. Nadal broke back, secured the set, and moved ahead 4-2 in the final set. Rosol refused to go away, taking that set into a tie-break, building a 4-2 lead of his own in that sequence. But Nadal collected five consecutive points with cool deliberation as the undisciplined and contentious Rosol self-destructed. The Spaniard was the victor 1-5, 7-5, 7-6 (4).
Next, Nadal had to endure another three set duel with the perplexing Grigor Dimitrov, but he rescued himself from 0-2 down in the final set to prevail 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. In the quarters, Nadal took on 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, and once more he was pushed close to his limits. Cilic looked close to unstoppable when he advanced to 6-4, 2-0. The explosiveness of his ground game and the severity of his serve were overwhelming to the Spaniard for a long while, but the 14 time major titlist remained unflappable and held his composure. He found his range from the baseline, raised the quality of his returns and emerged with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory.
Against the dynamic Richard Gasquet in the semifinals, Nadal took a 13-0 career head to record over the Frenchman onto the court with him, but his task was awfully tough. Nadal trailed 4-2 in the first set before capturing four games in a row. Gasquet did not despair, and he served for the second set at 5-4. But consecutive double faults from 15-0 were costly. Nadal broke for 5-5, and later bolted to 4-1 in the tie-break, only to lose five points in a row, squandering the last three of those with abysmal groundstroke errors, including two glaring ones off the forehand. But, with typical pride and perspicacity, Nadal rallied with a flourish to win 6-4, 7-6 (7). That was one arduous road to the final for the towering southpaw.
Federer had his share of difficulties as well. In his second round assignment against Philipp Kohlschreiber, the German served at 4-4, 30-30 in the final set as the Swiss seemed dazed and out of sorts. But Federer regained the initiative just in the nick of time to win 6-4, 4-6 6-4. He dropped the second set of his quarterfinal against the industrious David Goffin but regrouped for a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory, and then charged to 6-2, 5-1 against Jack Sock in the semifinals before losing three games in a row with a lapse in concentration. He soon finished off a 6-3, 6-4 triumph without any more wrinkles.
There was considerable intrigue surrounding the encounter between Federer and Nadal because so much time had elapsed since their last contest. Federer was clearly apprehensive at the outset while Nadal seemed poised and comfortable from the backcourt. The Spaniard held for 1-0, and had a break point in the second game, but Federer—who had double faulted at 40-30—released an impeccably placed first serve down the T in the ad court that created an opening for a forehand swing volley into the clear. The Swiss held on for 1-1, and that was a pivotal moment in determining the outcome of the opening set.
Both players held easily in the third and fourth games, but Federer made his move with Nadal serving at 2-2. At 30-30, he came forward behind a forehand approach hit with authority, and Nadal went down the line with a backhand pass. The Spaniard kept that shot low, but Federer still punched away a backhand volley winner. Nadal cast aside two break points, but Federer garnered a third when he unleashed a backhand crosscourt winner with sheer elegance. At break point again, he found the smallest possible opening for an inside in forehand, clipping the sideline for an astonishing winner. The Swiss had the break for 3-2.
Yet Nadal was unswerving. He reached break point in the sixth game, and could not have handled the situation much better. His return was deep. He approached to the Federer forehand with conviction. He was seemingly in good shape. But Federer produced an immaculate running forehand crosscourt passing shot winner on the dead run. He followed with two unstoppable first serves, moving to 4-2. Although Nadal held on for 3-4 gamely, Federer was rolling inexorably toward sealing the set. He held at 30 for 5-3, serving a pair of aces in that game. And then Federer broke again in the ninth game with an impressive offensive onslaught. Nadal also served a double fault to fall behind 0-30. Federer broke at love. He had taken eight of the last ten points in claiming the set 6-3.
Federer opened the second set with a love hold, serving another ace in that game. Nadal held on from deuce for 1-1, but he was clearly not getting the better of the tactical battle. Federer surged to 2-1, losing only one point on his serve in the third game, but Nadal steadied himself and reached 2-2 at the cost of only one point on his delivery. Yet Federer was soaring through this stretch of the match, attacking behind his first serve at 15-30 to draw a miss-hit forehand return from Nadal, and then serving consecutive aces from 30-30 (the first down the T, and the second out wide) for a 3-2 lead. Nadal was down break point in the sixth game, and it was a crucial moment for the Spaniard. He came through with a heavily sliced first serve wide to the Federer backhand that the Swiss could not return. Nadal held on for 3-3.
Federer, however, remained implacable on serve. He held at 15 for 4-3. He serve-volleyed twice in that game and came forward to win another point with a superbly crafted backhand volley winner down the line. The level of play was elevated on both sides of the net as Nadal held at 30 for 4-4 before Federer answered with a hold at 15 for 5-4, releasing two more aces in that game. In five service games across the second set, Federer had won 20 of 25 points in masterful fashion. Yet Nadal was undismayed. He was serving at 4-5, 0-15, but shifted mightily from defense to offense for a forehand drop volley winner. That was critical. Nadal held on a run of four straight points, arriving at 5-5 after serving down the T to set up a forehand down the line winner.
At 5-5, Federer displayed his first sign of nerves since early in the showdown. At 30-30, he had Nadal out of position, but missed the open court with a crosscourt forehand. Down break point, Federer could not escape. Nadal’s return was remarkably deep, and it opened an avenue for an inside out forehand. Federer was provoked into a mistake. Nadal had broken at last to go ahead 6-5, and he served out the set with his best and boldest tennis of the match. He started that game with a backhand winner crosscourt off a hanging return from the Swiss, and then laced a forehand down the line winner off another weak return from his adversary. An impeccable serve down the T from Nadal stymied Federer and lifted the Spaniard to 40-0, and he held at love with an overhead winner. Nadal had gone to one set all by collecting 12 of the last 14 points from the dangerous territory of 4-5, 0-15.
In the opening game of the final set, Federer seemed briefly unsettled, missing a couple of routine backhands on his way to 30-30. But he was unwavering from there. A well placed first serve down the T in the deuce court was too much for Nadal, who missed a forehand return. Federer attacked behind his first serve at 40-30, sending his delivery into Nadal’s body. The Spaniard netted his forehand return. But Nadal was, in the player’s vernacular, “feeling it.” He held at love for 1-1 before Federer did the same thing to reach 2-1. In the fourth game, however, Nadal double faulted to fall behind 30-40, but he extricated himself from that bind with a backhand passing shot winner and then held on for 2-2. Federer held at love for 3-2, missing only one first serve in that game, but Nadal kept up his end of the bargain, holding on at 30 for 3-3.
Nadal has made a career out of rising to meet the challenge of tense, trying and often monumental situations, playing his greatest tennis when the stakes are highest, displaying extraordinary resolve, outcompeting his opponents over and over again. That was not the case here. Federer was down 15-30 at 3-3 in the final set, and the Spaniard had a slight opening. But the Swiss served-volleyed on a second delivery, and Nadal ran around his backhand and miss-hit a forehand return. Federer stormed to 4-3. In the eighth game of the final set, Nadal reverted to the anxiety that has crippled him often in 2015. He smothered a forehand into the net off a deep return for 0-15, and sent a forehand alarmingly short that allowed Federer to easily step in for a backhand crosscourt winner. It was 0-30.
The Spaniard managed to move ahead 40-30, but became tentative again. Federer came forward unhesitatingly to force a passing shot error for deuce. Another errant forehand from Nadal—a feeble down the line attempt—gave Federer break point, and the 29-year-old faltered badly there, missing a crosscourt backhand under little pressure. He had essentially handed the Swiss that break, and now Federer was serving for the match. He was determined to come in on almost every point, and had mixed results. At 30-15, he serve-volleyed behind a second serve to the forehand, but that delivery had little on it and Nadal demolished it for a winner. At 30-30, however, Federer stepped up and produced his 12th and final ace of the match, going down the T in the deuce court.
Nadal passed Federer brilliantly off the backhand to save the first match point against him. Federer serve-volleyed again, and the return was at his feet. His half volley was not bad, but Nadal had a good look at a running forehand pass. Federer, though, stood his ground and was waiting for the crosscourt shot from his opponent, punching a backhand volley into a wide open space. At match point for the second time, Federer’s first serve was too good, and the Nadal return landed long. Federer prevailed 6-3, 5-7, 6-3. It was a win well deserved. He lost his serve only once in the contest, defended his forehand corner better than he has for a long while, kept coming forward with purpose, and made his second serve count. It was a largely sterling performance.
Yet Nadal, too, took something significant away from this match. He performed admirably, punished Federer frequently in the baseline exchanges, defended beautifully off his backhand side, and served well for the most part. He continues to move in the right direction as he heads into the end of a long and debilitating season. This was not a large setback, and in some ways it was a triumph for him to perform with such sparkle in defeat.
Now, let’s get to the women in Singapore. The tournament was suspenseful to be sure, and the tennis was first class in many respects throughout the week, although there were not many memorable round robin matches. But, for the first time ever, the event was guaranteed to have a player win what is arguably the fifth most important tournament in women’s tennis despite a 1-2 record in round robin play. Here is how it happened. Maria Sharapova was the keynote player in the Red Group. Having been off the WTA Tour since Wimbledon (with the exception of one uncompleted match at China in late September) with injuries, she stepped right in at Singapore without skipping a beat. Sharapova opened with a gutsy win over Radwanska, taking that match 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 after Radwanska battled back from 2-5 down in the final set to nearly make it 5-5. Sharapova followed with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over the underachieving Simona Halep, and then crushed Flavia Pennetta 7-5, 6-1 in the Italian’s last match ever.
Thus Sharapova posted a 3-0 record to advance to the semifinals. But all three players she ousted finished with 1-2 records. Radwanska—beaten in her first two meetings before dismissing Halep 7-6 (5), 6-1—was very fortunate to go through because her sets record was 3-4 while Halep and Pennetta were both 2-4. In the White Group, Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza replicated Sharapova’s feat of winning all three matches she played. Just like Sharapova, Muguruza took six of her seven sets. Muguruza commenced her tournament with a 6-3, 7-6 (4) win over Lucie Safarova. She stopped Angelique Kerber 6-4 6-4, and then won one of the best matches of the week 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 over Kvitova. Kvitova finished with a 1-2 match record, the same as both Kerber and Safarova. But Kvitova surpassed the two others because her sets record was 3-4 while Kerber and Safarova stood at 2-4.
When the eight top players in the world—with the glaring exception of an absent and injured Serena Williams—are assembled, losing one round robin match is to be expected. But losing twice and still making the final is simply not the way it should be. It makes a mockery of the format. In the semifinals, Sharapova was soundly beaten by an in form Kvitova, falling 6-3, 7-6 (3). The gifted left-hander had Sharapova ill at ease and off balance through most of the opening set, but Sharapova was hard pressed to stay in it.
But Sharapova asserted herself with clinical efficiency to establish a 5-1 second set lead. She rifled a pair of return winners—one off each flank—to reach 0-30 on Kvitova’s serve in the seventh game. But Kvitova obstinately held her ground with some impressive serving and her usual artillery of big shots off both sides. She held her ground and got to 2-5, broke Sharapova at love in the eighth game, but then faced a set point when serving at 3-5. Kvitova erased that opportunity with a scintillating inside out backhand winner, then took the next two points.
Sharapova wasn’t ceding any ground herself, but to no avail. She reached deuce at 5-4 but could not hold her serve. It was 5-5. At 6-6, they travelled to a tie-break, and Sharapova opened up a 2-0 lead. Yet Kvitova was not to be denied. She secured seven of the next eight points to get the victory.
In the other semifinal, Muguruza and Radwanska put on a very good show. Muguruza rallied from 1-4 to 4-4 in the opening set, but Radwanska is not only a singularly cerebral player, but she also competes honorably and fends off big hitters as well as anyone in the women’s game. She saved a couple of break points in the ninth game. Muguruza is a dynamic competitor and an inventive shotmaker. She held at love for 5-5 with consecutive backhand winners. Both players held to set up a tie-break. Muguruza came narrowly through that sequence to seal the set, taking it seven points to five.
Radwanska surged to 4-0 in the second set, withstood a three game spree from the Spaniard, but closed out the set 6-3 with a stirring demonstration or her versatility. On set point, she angled a backhand drop volley crosscourt, forcing Muguruza to move forward for a relatively weak response. Radwanska closed off the net and put away a forehand volley into the open court. Radwanska soared to 4-1 in the third but Muguruza resourcefully worked her way back to 4-4. That comeback was strikingly reminiscent of the first set.
Both players held to make it 5-5 but thereafter Radwanska was too cagey, and Muguruza faded somewhat physically. Radwanska was victorious 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5. Why did both Sharapova and Muguruza lose after being dominant in the round robin? The reasons for their defeats contrasted. Sharapova was vulnerable because she had been out of circulation over the second half of the season. A sharper and more attuned Sharapova might well have closed out the second set against Kvitova and gone on to victory. She suffered from a shortage of match play coming into the tournament. Muguruza was at the opposite end of the spectrum after a strong end of the season, and she played doubles in Singapore as well. She seemed devoid of energy.
So it came down to Kvitova and Radwanska in the championship match. Although in my view neither player fully deserved to be playing for the title after their round robin setbacks, the fact remains that the display of tennis they put on in the final was outstanding. It was an entertaining, unpredictable, absorbing contest, played out at a very high caliber, providing the fans with a spectacle to admire deeply. Radwanska was her usual sturdy and resilient self, absorbing all of the pace that the crackling Kvitova threw at her, demonstrating that her tactical acumen is second to none, revealing that she ought to be a front line player at all times.
She had a prolonged slump in the first half of 2015 but gathered considerable strength in the second half. Deservedly, Radwanska concludes the year at No. 5 in the world after her Singapore exploits. In the final she came out of the blocks in style, and claimed the first set in 33 minutes. Kvitova was spraying too many balls out of court, making 16 unforced errors. Radwanska won the set 6-2. Radwanska had only one unforced mistake. Kvitova struck back with vigor from 0-2 in the second set to make it one set all. The southpaw built a 2-0 final set, and it looked as if the two-time Wimbledon champion might add this prestigious year-end title to her collection.
Radwanska, however, had other ideas. Radwanska kept opening up the court judiciously, forcing Kvitova to cover too much court, playing the match on her own terms.
Nevertheless, the outcome hung in the balance until the very end. Radwanska collected three games in a row to lead 3-2, but lost her serve in the sixth game when Kvitova made one of her patented backhand down the line winners. The seventh game of that final set was critical. Kvitova saved a break point at 30-40, reached game point, but missed out on that opportunity. A double fault from Kvitova handed Radwanska another break point, and she exploited it. Thereafter, Radwanska was almost unerring, winning eight of ten points, taking the match 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
Radwanska thus took the biggest title of her career. She was runner-up at Wimbledon to Serena Williams in 2012, but this was probably beyond her wildest dreams. At 26, she could have some great days, weeks and fortnights ahead of her. She is to be commended for taking advantage of some good fortune in having the chance to play for the title, but the fact remains that her grit in both the semifinals and final was gigantic.
On the flip side, this tournament exposed some of the fundamental problems in the upper regions of the women’s game. A good case can be made that there is too much parity when you look past Serena Williams. Serena won three of the four majors and 53 of 56 matches in 2015. Her standards were high and she carried the game on her back. Yet the fact remains that she does not have the kind of competition she should at the age of 35. The other leading players are unreliable in many respects. Halep finishes 2015 at No. 2 but she has largely been a disappointment and her competitiveness is not always apparent. Sharapova is enduringly great but is hurt too often. Kvitova is wildly unpredictable. Perhaps Muguruza will build on her 2015 achievements but that remains to be seen. The women’s game needs a few players to step up decidedly in 2016 and make their presence known on a more consistent basis.
But let’s leave all that aside for the moment. This past Sunday was a celebratory time for the game. Radwanska played a tremendous final. And Federer secured his 88th career title on the ATP World Tour, and his sixth crown of 2015. His triumph in Basel was his seventh in that city. He has also won Wimbledon, Cincinnati and Dubai seven times, and has been victorious eight times in Halle. At 34, he is going strong. At 29, Nadal is recovering his conviction step by step. It was a pleasure to see him step on the court to play Federer again. It had been far too long since they collided, but they more than made up for lost time.