In recent years the ATP Tour has made its share of unforced marketing errors: purple courts, round-robin formats and the hopelessly lame slogan, New Balls, Please. But in 2009 the tour hit an authoritative winner when it moved its nomadic year-end championship to Europe (the sport's undisputed nerve center) and a big-time venue (London's O2 Arena). Last week the World Tour Finals drew the game's top eight singles players and doubles teams. There were no absentees, no injuries, no controversies—just top-shelf tennis played in front of robust crowds that included Diego Maradona. "It's the way a World Tour Finals should look," says Andy Roddick, a veteran of six previous finals, which were held from Houston to Shanghai. "It's the best atmosphere I've played in as far as this event goes."
As a sort of karmic reward for this sharp decision-making, the tournament was treated to what the London tabloids called the dream final, Federer-Nadal XXII. As dynamic as the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has been, this installment (only the second in 2010) came at a critical juncture. Nadal had seldom looked more formidable, firmly settled atop the ATP rankings after winning the previous three Grand Slam titles. Federer had seldom looked shakier—ranked second, yes, but with no majors (and several puzzling defeats) since last February. The larger context: Nearly a year after Federer was anointed the sport's Greatest Ever, he felt the hot breath of Nadal on his neck. That Nadal came into the match with a 14--7 head-to-head record only amplified questions about Federer's supremacy.
In front of a sold-out crowd of 17,500 on Sunday afternoon, they added to their history in spectacular fashion. Playing with a passion that he hasn't always displayed this year, Federer attacked Nadal's weaker deliveries, served brilliantly and didn't buckle under pressure, prevailing 6--3, 3--6, 6--1. The match was an eloquent statement—Don't count me out—that doubled as a blueprint for how to beat Nadal: Attack relentlessly, serve to his body, neutralize his speed with low-bouncing slices.
One sterling week doesn't change the narrative in men's tennis, but Federer sure looked like a world-beater in London. Before taking down Nadal, he waxed the other members of the top five (Robin S√∂derling, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic) in straight sets. In the final he played as though his legacy rested on the outcome, and after walloping yet another forehand winner on match point, he let out a howl and punched enough air to send a breeze across the Continent. "I'm really thrilled [with] the way I played all week," Federer said later. "Then, obviously, beating Rafa in the finals makes it extra special because of the year he had."
It was, he conceded, "just a great way to end the season." He was speaking for himself, but it applied to the sport as well.
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The WTA's top-ranked player, Caroline Wozniacki, failed to win a major in 2010. Serena Williams won two but played in only six tournaments. Justine Henin's comeback faltered, and Maria Sharapova battled injuries. One highlight, though, was the return of Kimiko Date Krumm, who rose to No. 4 in 1995 but quit at the end of the next season. Twelve years later she unretired (don't they all?), and in 2010, the year she turned 40, she beat Sharapova, No. 8 Sam Stosur and former No. 1 Dinara Safina to finish in the top 50.... After reaching the Wimbledon final, Tomas Berdych won only nine of his next 23 matches.... Think tennis requires physical maturity? The average age of players in the ATP's top 100 is 26, a record high.
JULIAN FINNEY/GETTY IMAGES (FEDERER)
SURE FIRE Federer's pinpoint serves helped him stay aggressive throughout his victory over Nadal in the title match.
MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES (DATE KRUMM)