Fendrich on Tennis: Nadal, Federer back at the top in 2017

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NEW YORK (AP) Who would have guessed at the start of 2017 that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer would divvy up the year’s four Grand Slam titles?

And who could possibly pretend to know what 2018 will bring for them?

By the time Nadal was biting the handle of the U.S. Open trophy on Sunday night , his usual way of celebrating a tournament victory, he had raised his career Grand Slam championship count to 16: three at Flushing Meadows, an unprecedented 10 at the French Open (including this June, shortly after turning 31), two at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open.

That moved him back within three of Federer, whose 19 is the record among men: an unprecedented eight at the All England Club (including in July, shortly before turning 36), five at the U.S. Open, four at the Australian Open (including in January) and one at Roland Garros.

“Of course, (it’s) something difficult to imagine, eight months ago or nine months ago, that we will be winning two Grand Slams each,” Nadal said. “But here we are.”

Indeed, in January, it sure appeared that the two greats of the game had left their best days behind.

As of Monday, they are ranked 1-2 .

Federer began this season at No. 16, having missed the last half while letting his back and left knee heal.

Nadal was No. 9, having pulled out after the second round of the French Open and skipped Wimbledon entirely because of an injured left wrist.

“When you get (an) injury,” Nadal said, “then (it) seems like the season is a disaster.”

Federer began 2017 having gone 4+ years without a Grand Slam title.

Nadal’s drought without so much as one appearance in a major semifinal had stretched to about 2+ years.

By the end of the Australian Open, though, they were squaring off to decide the title.

It was the pair’s ninth Grand Slam final against each other – it’s happened at least twice at each major except the U.S. Open, where they have never met – but first since the 2011 French Open.

At the time, Nadal said Sunday, “I was surprised.”

But he wasn’t taken aback by what he and Federer were able to do later in the year. It was clear – to Nadal, to everyone – that they were once again capable of being the dominant figures in their sport.

“To come back and win all four Grand Slams was quite an achievement, regardless of how good they are. There is a lot of very tough competition,” said Kevin Anderson, the first-time major finalist who failed to put up too much of a fight in a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 loss to the No. 1-ranked Nadal.

“When they’re healthy, I think they have so many skills they can rely on. In addition to that is just the amount of experience they have had,” Anderson said. “Playing at this level, I think they feel very comfortable, and obviously they might get nervous, but just like anything, the more you do it, the more used to it you get.”

It didn’t hurt that the three men who are next in the pecking order all had down years and injury issues: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. All missed the U.S. Open. All could return to contention for big prizes next year.

Add in that trio’s major totals (Djokovic has 12, Murray and Wawrinka three apiece), and since the start of the 2005 French Open, the top five men have won 49 of the past 51 Grand Slam championships.

Still, after all this time, there are still two who stand alone at the top: Rafa and Roger.

“There is just two things that probably we share – that is passion for what we are doing, passion for tennis , passion for the competition,” Nadal said, “and the spirit of improvement all the time.”

The question was put to him Sunday night: How important is it for you to catch Federer in the race for most Grand Slam titles?

“I really never thought much about that. I just do my way. He does his way,” Nadal responded. “Let’s see when we finish, no?”

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

Dimitrov defeats Goffin to win ATP Finals title

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LONDON — Grigor Dimitrov claimed the biggest title of his career at the season-ending ATP Finals on Sunday, prevailing on his fifth match point to beat David Goffin of Belgium 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.

“It’s such an honor to play here,” Dimitrov said. “This week has been one of the best I’ve ever had.”

The sixth-seeded Bulgarian won in 2 hours, 30 minutes, 15 seconds for the longest final since the tournament returned to a three-set format in 2008.

Dimitrov won all five of his matches at the O2 Arena to become the first player to win the elite tournament on debut since 1998, when Alex Corretja of Spain triumphed in Hanover.

Goffin saved three match points on his own serve, but Dimitrov kept his cool, taking the second opportunity on his own delivery to close it out.

By reaching the final, Dimitrov had already secured a career-high No. 3-ranking to end the year. Goffin also moves up to a career-best No. 7.

The final lasted more than 11 minutes longer than Roger Federer took to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2011. It was a nervous start as both players failed to hold serve in the opening three games before Goffin settled down to control the opener as Dimitrov struggled with his timing.

However, Dimitrov fought his way back into the set. He leveled in the eighth game before breaking once more in the 12th to snatch the set in which Goffin hit eight more winners.

Dimitrov’s confidence carried into the second set, where he brought up the first break point in the sixth game, only for Goffin to produce a stunning cross-court backhand winner to save it. The momentum back with him, Goffin broke the following game for a 4-3 lead and calmly closed out the set.

Having come from behind to beat Federer in Saturday’s semifinal, Goffin had every reason to be confident and could have gone ahead. But he wasted four break points in the opening game – they would turn out to be his only chances in the decider.

Dimitrov was more clinical, striking in the sixth game to take control. Goffin tested Dimitrov’s nerve by saving three match points on his own serve, before saving one on Dimitrov’s. However the Belgian’s resistance came to an end as he netted a backhand volley, leaving Dimitrov in tears.

(This story has been corrected to show it was the longest three-set final since the tournament returned to a three-set format in 2008, not longest three-set final ever.)

Goffin ousts Federer in ATP Finals semis

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LONDON — David Goffin ended Roger Federer’s bid for a seventh ATP Finals title by stunning the favorite 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals on Saturday.

The Belgian claimed the biggest win of his career and qualified for the final on Sunday, when he will face Grigor Dimitrov or Jack Sock. They play later Saturday.

Federer looked to be heading toward his 11th final at the elite season-ending tournament when he cruised through the first set, but Goffin took advantage of a drop in his play to level.

Despite having lost all six of his previous encounters with Federer, Goffin was able to execute better in the deciding set, breaking in the third game and producing a nerveless display of serving to seal victory.