November 19, 2006: Federer’s Masters Cup masterclass

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On this day in tennis history, Roger Federer capped off one of his best seasons ever with a straight-set dismantling over James Blake in the Masters Cup.

What happened 

On this day, November 19, 2006, Roger Federer put the cherry on top of an amazing season, where he dominated the game like no one before, by defeating James Blake in the final of the Masters Cup. In the last match of the year, the Swiss Maestro delivered a masterclass and left no chance to his opponent, annihilating Blake 6-0, 6-3, 6-4. After this final win, Federer had now accumulated 12 titles in one year, including all the Grand Slams but Roland-Garros (where he finished runner-up) and four Masters 1000 events, losing only five matches in the process.

The players involved

Roger Federer was born in 1981. After he finished 1998 as world No 1 in juniors,  Federer performed well in his first professional matches — in his first five main tour appearances back in 1998 and 1999, he reached the quarter-finals three times, in Toulouse, Marseille and Rotterdam. His mind-blowing game amazed the world tennis and soon, he was announced as the future world No 1.

The Swiss was very emotional during his first years on the tour, but eventually mastered his nerves in 2003, when he claimed his claimed his first major title at Wimbledon (defeating Mark Philippoussis in the final, 7-6, 6-2, 7-6). A few months later, after triumphing at the Australian Open (defeating Marat Safin in the final, 7-6, 6-4, 6-3), he became world No 1 on February 2, 2004, and he held that spot without a break since then. Since 2003, he had won nine Grand Slams: the Australian Open (2004, 2006), Wimbledon (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006) and the US Open (2004, 2005, 2006). Since he became the top player in the world, his records also included 24 ATP titles, including 11 Masters 1000 tournaments. Federer had already won the Masters Cup in 2003 and 2004.  In 2006, his best year so far, he had already claimed eleven titles that included three Grand Slams, and four Masters Series. He had only suffered 5 losses, four of these against his only serious rival at the time, Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard was the main reason Federer hadn’t won the French Open yet :  he lost against him in the semi-final in 2005 (6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3) and in the final in 2006 (1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6).

James Blake was born in 1979. After playing two years at Harvard University, he decided to start a professional career in 1999, and in September 2001, he entered the top 100. Blake played a very aggressive game powered by his flat groundstrokes.  In 2002, after reaching his first professional finales in Memphis (lost to Andy Roddick, 6-4, 3-6,, 7-5) and in Newport (lost to Taylor Dent, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4), James Blake claimed his first ATP title in Washington D.C., where he edged Paradorn Srichapan in the final (1-6, 7-6, 6-4). In 2003, Blake established himself as a solid top 30 player, but he went through a hard year in 2004, fracturing a vertebra in Rome, before facing the death of his father in July and developing shingles which temporarily paralyzed half his face and blurred his vision. As a consequence, his ranking dropped as low as world No 210 in April 2005. A few months later, entering the US Open draw thanks to a wild card, James Blake reached the quarter-finals, where he was defeated by Andre Agassi after an epic five-set battle (3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6). 2006 was his peak year so far. During the summer, he obtained his best-ever ranking as world No 5 and then qualified for the Masters Cup after claiming five titles and reaching the US Open quarter-finals again (lost to Roger Federer, 7-6, 6-0, 6-7, 6-4).

The place

Founded in 1970, the year-end Masters Cup was the final showdown between the eight best players in the world. Held in a different location every year at the start, in settled at the Madison Square Garden, in New York, from 1977 until 1989. Since then, the tournament had moved several times again :  Frankfurt (1990-1995), Hanover (1996-1999), Lisbon (2000), Sydney (2001), Shanghai (2002), Houston (2003-2004), then back to Shanghai in 2005. As only the eight top players of the year qualify for the event, the list of its former champions is nothing short of impressive.

The facts

The two players facing each other in the final of the Masters Cup both had their best seasons in 2006. Roger Federer had been almost unchallenged all-year round, apart from the clay court season, where his nemesis Nadal made his life miserable by defeating him four times. Undefeated in the round-robin, the Swiss treated himself with a satisfying win over the Spaniard (6-4, 7-5) in the semi-finals.  James Blake’s achievements were hard to compare with Federer’s, only having entered the top 10 and qualifying for the Masters Cup for the first time in his career. In his first appearance, he beat Nadal in the round-robin (6-4, 7-6), and went on to eliminate the defending champion, world No 7 David Nalbandian (6-4, 6-1) in the semis.

In five previous encounters with the undisputed world No 1, only once had the American managed to win a set — back in the quarterfinals of the last US Open, where Federer had prevailed (7-6, 6-0, 6-7, 6-4). The Swiss Maestro had a real hold on his opponent, and he used it perfectly with an absolutely flying start that ruined any hopes that Blake could have had. Federer set the standards by taking the first seven games, leaving the American clueless. In the end, it took Federer less than two hours and 41 winners to dismiss Blake, 6-0, 6-3, 6-4. The world No 8 looked lost on the court, as if he couldn’t believe what was happening to him.

“Today, you know, there’s nothing I could have done,” said the runner-up, quoted by The New York Times. “He played too good. I’ve probably run out of adjectives to describe him on the court, to talk about his excellence. He’s just unbelievable. Steps it up even more in finals.”

The world No 1 himself was almost embarrassed when it came to describe his performance. “I’ve run out of words myself. I had to laugh at times today at how well I was playing. At this point in my career I’m so happy with my game.”

What’s next

Federer would heavily dominate the game in 2007 as well, claiming three out of four Grand Slam tournaments again. From 2008, he was challenged by Rafael Nadal, and later by Novak Djokovic, but, fourteen years later, in 2020, Roger Federer would hold an amazing 103 titles on the tour, including 20 Grand Slams, 6 Masters Cups and 28 Masters 1000.

James Blake would eventually beat Roger Federer, though only once in eleven encounters. In the quarterfinals of the Olympic event in Beijing, in 2008, the American would prevail (6-4, 7-6). He would claim his last title in 2007, in New Haven, and, after a last Grand Slam quarterfinal reached at the 2008 Australian Open, he would slowly decline. He would leave the top 10 in August 2008, and the top 50 in 2010. Although he would never officially announce his retirement, James Blake would stop competing on the tour in 2013.

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