Well, this was unexpected. Awkward, even, for the legions of fans who had bought tickets for this afternoon’s final in the hope of seeing Roger Federer. But David Goffin, the Belgian who had looked so short of energy in midweek, rewrote the script yesterday by overcoming Federer in one of the O2’s biggest upsets.
Bear in mind that Goffin had never come close to challenging Federer before, in six previous meetings. On Friday, he had sounded nonplussed at the prospect of this semi-final, saying “I’ve never found a key to beat Roger. Honestly, I don’t know what to do tomorrow.”
His low expectations were born out in the first set. Goffin was reduced to the role of a spectator as Federer toyed with him, tossing in cheeky drop-shots and scorching passing shots. But the worm turned early in the second set, when Goffin scored his first break of serve. Suddenly he was the man feeling the ball more cleanly on his racket.
Federer was a step slow around the court now, perhaps tiring at the end of a season that had already brought him seven titles. He couldn’t find a way to recover his early fluency. And although Goffin has had trouble closing against big names in the past – he struggled to finish off a hobbled Rafael Nadal here in his opening match on Monday – his serve helped him over the finish line when it came to the crunch. Two aces in the first two points of the decisive game got him off to the perfect start, and within a couple of minutes he had completed his 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 win.
“Words can’t describe how I am feeling,” Goffin told the on-court interviewer Annabel Croft. “So much joy, so much happiness, such a special moment.” Later, speaking to reporters, he confirmed that it was the biggest win of his career.
It was hard to reconcile this triumphant figure with the hag-ridden one who had lost 6-0, 6-2 to Grigor Dimitrov on Wednesday night. At that point, we wondered whether Goffin was carrying a significant problem in his knee, which he always tapes up.
There were real concerns that he might withdraw in order to prepare for the Davis Cup final, which will pit Belgium against France in Lille next weekend. Yet if Goffin had no answers to “Baby Fed” – as Dimitrov is widely known, thanks to the visual similarities between the two men’s games – then he was ready to take down the senior version yesterday.
As for Federer, he had won all three of his group matches, but admitted yesterday that he had never quite settled into this tournament as he might have hoped. “I'm not that disappointed that I wasn't able to raise it,” he said, when asked about his level of play. “Because I just felt like I was never quite feeling it 100 per cent. There's no need to dwell over it, especially when it's the last match of the season. I wish I could have played more aggressive today, but I never really felt comfortable taking the ball on.”
His defeat has implications for next year’s rankings. Had Federer lifted this title, he would have gone into 2018 right on Rafael Nadal’s shoulder. As it is, he will start 1,040 points behind, after an off-season that will last just six weeks rather than the six months he enjoyed in the build up to January’s Australian Open.
It will also be difficult for Federer to add to his tally substantially, given that he won the first three significant tournaments of 2017. Nadal, by extension, is almost guaranteed to remain No. 1 until the clay-court season at the very least.
In yesterday’s doubles, meanwhile, Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares were eliminated by the reigning champions John Peer and Henri Kontinen. This was a high-quality match in which both teams played some sharp tennis, but Kontinen was particularly outstanding.
He and Peers – who had been Murray’s regular partner until two years ago – never dropped their serve, and never even looked like they were going to. In the end, they forged through to the final by a 7-6, 6-2 margin. And Murray and Soares fell at the semi-final stage for the second straight year.