SHANGHAI: Roger Federer said he “saved the best for last” after he beat great rival Rafael Nadal for the fifth time in succession to win the Shanghai Masters on Sunday.
The surprisingly one-sided 6-4, 6-3 victory over the world number one from Spain brought a 94th title for the Swiss legend, drawing him level with the great Ivan Lendl.
Nadal, who admitted afterwards that he had been defeated by the better man on the night, was ahead in their overall head-to-head record going into the clash – 23 wins to Federer’s 14.
But this time he was up against it almost right away.
Number two Federer put the Spaniard under the cosh in breaking him in the first game, to roars of approval from the majority inside the arena.
Another break to 36-year-old Federer in the fifth game of the second set put him in reach of a second Shanghai Masters crown — and a sixth title in 2017.
Federer, who has been managing his schedule to wring the best out of his ageing body, said he had improved as the week went on and felt he hit peak form just when it mattered.
“It’s been a tough week, five straight matches is always a test and a challenge for anybody’s body, especially with the pressure rising,” he said.
“I felt I was playing well all week and that settled my nerves because I was returning well from the match here against (Diego) Schwartzman (in his opener).
“The serve only got better and I saved the best for last – I played some great matches, against (Juan Martin) del Potro in sets two and three and now these two sets here today.
“In a way not surprising because I felt good all week… I was ready.”
Federer, fondly known as “Cow” in China for his laid-back personality, started the better in grabbing the break and then rattled through his own service game for 2-0.
Federer, a 19-time Grand Slam champion, was in full flow under the Qizhong Tennis Center roof, which was closed because of downpours in Shanghai.
Nadal, 31, fresh from winning the US Open and China Open, groaned while lashing many of his shots while Federer was all quiet efficiency.
Somewhere in the stadium somebody rattled a cow bell and Federer responded by making it 4-2 with two booming aces in a row.
In contrast, Nadal – a 16-time Grand Slam winner who has never won the Shanghai Masters — was labouring through his service games.
There were suggestions that Federer might not be quite as fresh as his younger foe, having been pushed to three sets a day earlier in the second semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro.
The timeless Federer rubbished that notion as he seared his way to a 5-3 first-set lead.
Nadal sent down his fourth ace for 5-4, only for Federer to seal the set with his seventh ace of the match.
There was little between the great rivals in the early exchanges of the second set until the fifth game.
Nadal saved the first break point but could not survive the second one, to put Federer in touch of the title.
Nadal’s defeat sees Federer close the gap at the top of the world rankings as the year approaches its climax. But the Spaniard has nevertheless enjoyed a remarkable season of his own.
His triumph in Beijing last weekend was also his sixth of the year as he continues to defy doubts about his fitness following repeated injuries.
The Spaniard called it “an emotional year”.
“I could maybe have done some things better,” said Nadal.
“Of course was not the best match of the week for me… but when someone plays better than you in most of the things that really matter in this sport, then it’s tough.”
He declined to say if he had been hampered by a problem with his right knee, which had a bandage on it during the match.
“I don’t want to talk about that now, sorry,” Nadal said.
“After losing a final it’s not the moment.”