Something unusual happened in Shanghai on Sunday morning. Roger Federer lost a match. It was his first loss since the French Open and the first time he has lost a final since July, 2003. David Nalbandian beat Federer, 6-7(4), 6-7(11), 6-2, 6-1, 7-6(3), to win the year-end Masters Cup title.

Sometimes it gets boring writing about winning streaks. The same old person wins and you have to think of something new to say about the repeat victor and something hopeful to say about the hapless opponents. This loss is such a unique opportunity that my co-writer, Pat Davis, and I are both covering it. You can read Pat’s take here.

The question is: did Federer lose the match or did Nalbandian win it? Did Federer’s injured ankle prevent him from playing his usual high level of tennis or did Nalbandian play so well that he is a threat to take majors away from Federer in the future?

The answer is: Federer is likely to start another winning streak when the 2006 season starts in January and journalists will again have to think of new ways to describe his superlative play.

The problem was not Federer’s ankle. “No pain. Not real pain, ” he said after the match. Instead, the problem was “Real big, big fatigue.” He was on crutches three weeks ago and last played in a tournament six weeks ago. He wasn’t in match shape.

The question is: did Federer lose the match or did Nalbandian win it?

Federer and Nalbandian have been playing each other since junior tennis. Nalbandian dominated Federer in juniors and won their first five professional matches but Federer has won the last four. Though Federer is gracious, he is not lacking in self confidence. He’s not concerned about Nalbandian: “the way I played him at the US Open, I definitely felt like I’ve got him figured out.”

But Federer didn’t just lose it, Nalbandian did everything he could to take advantage of Federer’s condition and it won him the match. Again and again he sliced drop shots just over the net and ran Federer side to side to tire him out. Every time Federer looked like he was pulling away, Nalbandian made him play one more stroke or stretched the game a few more points to stay right with him. At the end of the first set, Federer won the tiebreaker with an unplayable net chord, both players had fifteen winners and almost identical unforced errors.

At 5-5, 15-15, in the second set, Federer and Nalbandian got into a point that looked like a backhand hitting exercise till Nalbandain pulled a backhand particularly wide. Federer stabbed at the ball getting it just over the net. Nabandian ran in and popped the ball up and Federer hit a lob over his head. Nalbandian ran backwards and hit the ball between his legs and into the net. On the next point Federer hit behind Nalbandian to get double break point but then hit three straight errors. Nalbandian had held serve by hanging around long enough for Federer to make mistakes.

The second set tiebreaker was a knockdown, drag out fight. At 10-9, Nalbandian hit yet another drop shot – his fifth in the tiebreaker. Federer got to it and hit it cross court but Nalbandian returned an even sharper angle cross court, Federer had to go to his knees to get to it, then snatched the ball out of the air for a winner to even the score at 10-10.

Federer won the tiebreaker, 13-11, but the damage was done. The first two sets took over two hours and fifteen minutes to play and Federer started to lose his legs in the third set. His first serve percentage dropped to 45% and he won only 25% of his second serve points. That was unusual enough but then I saw something I’ve never seen in a Federer match. Nalbandian had broken him twice and was serving for the set at 5-2, 30-15 when Federer hit a cross court winner that landed on the line. As he walked along the baseline, Federer flicked his arm at Nalbandian and shouted “shut”, shut up?, then looked at chair umpire Wayne McEwen. McEwen had overruled a few early calls correctly but he had muffed the last three or four. His constant overruling encouraged Nalbandian to question calls and Federer was sick of it. Nalbandian rubbed his chin on his shirt and stood there. After getting over the shock, he might have had an inner smile. Federer was clearly rattled.

Early in the fourth set, Federer called the trainer out to rub some life into his legs but it didn’t work. After Nalbandian got his second break of the set, Federer waved at a few balls but saved his energy for the fifth set, the last set of the match and the season.

…playing an injured opponent can be tricky. You look bad if you lose but you don’t get full credit if you win.

Nalbandian knew his opponent was down and he went on a tear. After going up 4-0 in the fifth set he had won ten straight games. The match appeared to be over. But playing an injured opponent can be tricky. You look bad if you lose but you don’t get full credit if you win. Winning a very important title can be nerve wracking enough without the added pressure. Nalbandian felt the pressure; he hit a few errors and gave Federer an opening.

He hit a drop shot error on break point to give Federer his first game in the set. I’m sure Federer appreciated that, the drop shot had been punishing him the entire match. Two games later, Federer failed to convert his first two break points but Nalbandian gave him another with an error and Federer finally won the game with a forehand down the line. Incredibly enough, the match was back on serve.

Nalbandian was now the one who was rattled. At 5-5, he hit another error to lose the game and let Federer serve for the match. After losing his legs and ten straight games, Federer found the strength somewhere deep inside to win five straight games and come within two points of winning the match. You don’t win thirty-four matches in a row and twenty-four straight finals without a huge measure of pride and desire.

Nalbandian finally collected his mind, “I can’t go home like this, ” he said to himself, and pushed the set to a tiebreaker which he won.

Federer lost the match but we’re left with the same problem: thinking of something new to say about his talent. Maybe it’s not so hard. We’ve talked about his superb movement and graceful strokes, and his ability to break down his opponent. Now we can talk about the depth of his pride and the size of his heart.

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