It has been a rivalry that has dominated their generation, but the history books will show that in the end there was one clear winner.
Rafael Nadal yesterday took his head-to-head record with Roger Federer to 22 wins from 32 matches with a 7-5, 6-3 victory in the semi-finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.
After his least productive season for 12 years Federer had raised hopes that he might finish this campaign with a flourish. Having played well at the recent tournaments in Basel and Paris, the world No 7 had produced one of his best performances of the year to come back from 3-0 down in the deciding set to win Saturday’s showdown with Juan Martin del Potro at the end of the round-robin phase.
Nadal, however, is a different proposition, even in conditions which are to his disadvantage.
The 27-year-old Spaniard has won only one of his 60 titles on an indoor hard court and in four previous appearances at these year-end championships had made the final just once, but after his sensational comeback year he clearly believes that anything is possible.
Monday’s final will be Nadal’s 14th of the season. An 11th title would equal his previous largest haul in 2005.
For eight games the contest was close, but when Federer served at 4-4 Nadal broke with some ferocious forehands. Federer, who attacked throughout, played his best return game to break back immediately, but Nadal was not to be denied. Some wayward Federer forehands handed him a second break and the Spaniard served out to love to take the set.
The pattern for the rest of the match had been established, with Nadal striking the ball consistently from behind the baseline and Federer making too many mistakes.
Another woeful forehand by Federer gave Nadal the crucial break of the second set at 2-2, while the last two points of the match summed up the world No 7’s day. Having netted a volley to give Nadal match point, Federer came in behind his next serve, only to hit a routine backhand volley beyond the baseline.
“Roger played really aggressively,” Nadal said afterwards. “At the beginning, his serve worked very well. My feeling is that he played very well in the first set. He was closer than me to having the break. Until 4-4, he was playing better than me.
“I saved a few very important break points and then I played a good game when I had the break. I think I played a great point on the first break point.
“The key of the match was probably the game at 5-5 after he had the break back when I was serving for the first set. I broke again and that was very important.”
Federer, admitting that he felt a little tired after his recent exertions, lamented his own erratic play and added: “I thought the margins were more on his side. He was playing more consistently. He was playing more solid. He plays the way he always plays. I just couldn’t come up with the shots when I needed them, forehand or serve, moving forward.”
Nadal insisted that he drew greater satisfaction from reaching the final than from beating his old rival.
“The most important thing for me is that I have won four matches against top-eight players on what is the toughest surface for me,” he said. “It’s a very good way to finish the year.”
Federer said he would take some positives from his recent performances. Having not recorded a victory over a top 10 player in the previous 10 months, he has enjoyed three such wins in the last fortnight. He has also been free of pain after a year dealing with back problems.
The Swiss said his target for 2014 would remain the same: to win big tournaments. “With the rankings, if it’s not No 1 then I’m not interested,” he said. “But I’m back confident and excited, going into the off season and starting again next year.
“It’s important to stay within a certain ranking, but after that I need to make sure I stay competitive, I can hang with the best, and particularly beat the best.”