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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, November 18, 2017

LONDON—David Goffin grew up with a Roger Federer poster plastered to his bedroom wall.

Today, the clever Belgian baseliner drove Federer up the wall.

Semifinal Preview: Dimitrov vs. Sock

In a dazzling performance, Goffin fought off nine of 11 break points shocking Federer, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, roaring into the Nitto ATP Finals at the O2 Arena.

Growing stronger with each game, Goffin finished in style slashing successive aces to open the final game, closing the biggest win of his career with conviction. He will play either sixth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov or eighth-seeded Jack Sock in tomorrow's final. 

“There are no words,” Goffin told an appreciative crowd afterward. “I cannot describe it. So much joy, so much happiness. I’m so happy to play this match in front of you.”




Goffin opened the tournament knocking off world No. 1 Rafael Nadal on Monday night and took the court today confronting the unenviable challenge of trying to defeat the world’s top two in a six-day span.

Goffin is the sixth man to defeat Federer and Nadal in the same tournament and the first man since Novak Djokovic in 2015 to beat both legendary champions at the Nitto ATP Finals.

“Both are really special,” Goffin said. “It was the first time against Rafa. Then the semifinal for the first time for me here, and to beat Roger for the first time here in such a big event, big tournament, it was the perfect moment. Yeah, it is the best win of my career, for sure.”

A stunning victory snapped Federer's 13-match winning streak. The Wimbledon winner, who struggled to control his forehand at critical stages, summed up the surprise simply. 

"I just think he was able to raise his game," Federer said. "Maybe I helped him doing it, maybe not. But look, I just think the better returner won over the better server today. It's a bit disappointing for me because it's indoors, it's a court I like to play on. But I had my chances and I missed them. When he had them, he was very committed. I think that was the difference today."

For one set, the 26-year-old Belgian could do little right.

For the final two sets, Goffin did nearly everything right in a role reversal as the Belgian played periods of all-court tennis reminiscent of the 19-time Grand Slam champion while Federer was frequently defending from the baseline. 

Changing direction beautifully, Goffin drove the ball down the line with the authority of a young Nikolay Davydenko, attacked short balls with vigor and served wide to the Federer backhand on the ad side before striking sharply to the Swiss' vaunted forehand.

It was fearless tennis from the lightest man in the Top 20.

“I just think he raised his game. I couldn't follow any more,” Federer said. “Maybe my game dropped naturally a little bit because he was playing better. Maybe (I) never really reached my best level because the first set was all right, you know. But he didn't play very well in that set, I don't believe.

“Yeah, so it's pretty disappointing. But at the end he did play extremely well, and he was the better player on the court. I feel like it's okay like this, you know, for him to win.”

Before this match, the eighth-ranked Belgian conceded competitive scar tissue—and a dearth of ideas—facing his childhood hero, who had won 14 of their 16 prior sets.

“I've never found a key to beat Roger. Honestly, I don't know what to do tomorrow,” Goffin admitted after dismissing good friend Dominic Thiem yesterday to earn a spot as the final semifinalist. “But I'm going to try something, something different, something that I've never done in the past. Yeah, I will try to do my best to play a better match than in Basel, for sure.”

Blasted off the court in Basel by Federer a few weeks ago, Goffin was brilliant in this rematch.

Asked if he saw any difference in his opponent’s tactics, Federer quipped: “Yeah, he played better. That was a good plan.”

“It's that simple,” Federer continued. “I didn't feel like you could do that much different things on this court, you know. If you told me that he was going to play way back in the court and roll the ball up and try things like this, then it's really a big change. Other than that, I didn't feel a big difference to previous times.”

For the first half hour, it was business as usual.

Federer won the toss, elected to receive and pounded the lithe Belgian’s forehand converting his fifth break point in the opening game.




The six-time champion broke again in the fifth game. A soaring smash sealed a love hold for 5-1. Federer reached triple set point with a slick serve and volley sliding a 111 mph ace to snatch a one-set lead after 33 minutes.

On this day, Goffin was in no mood for hero worship.

The seventh seed scorched a forehand pass crosscourt breaking for a 2-0 second set lead then delivered brilliance. A forehand swing volley and consecutive aces stamped a love hold for 3-0.

Serving with new balls, Goffin delivered his second love hold to take the second set leveling after 68 minutes of play.

Following a backhand down the line forward, Goffin snapped a smash for double break point. When Federer missed a backhand, Goffin broke for 2-1 in the decider.




In a bold play, the baseliner streaked forehand knocking off a forehand volley to deny break point. A Federer-esque backhand drop volley helped him hold for 3-1.

While Goffin was skittish stumbling through the finish line against a gimpy Nadal on Monday night, he was imposing in his closing power today, winning 12 of the final 13 points on his serve.

Watching his own highlights calmed Goffin's nerve to close.

"It was good there was a screen on the changeover," Goffin said. "I was more relaxed so I didn't think about the first point or the game I have to play. I was watching the highlights of the previous game. I was a little bit more relaxed. As soon as the chair umpire said, Time, I was ready with the ball. I didn't have time to think about what I have to do."

Slashing successive aces to start the final game, Goffin closed an impressive conquest in one hour, 45 minutes when Federer sailed his 22nd forehand error wide.

The pair engaged in an emotional embrace at net while the David Bowie anthem "Heroes" blared over the O2 sound system.




In a classy gesture, father Robert Federer, seated directly across from his son in the support box, stood and applauded both men when it was over.

Afterward, Federer gave his sometime practice partner full credit for his first victory in their seven meetings.

“He's crushed me too many times in practice not to do it also once in a match situation,” Federer said. “No, look, I'm very happy for him. He's a great guy. I like him a lot. I think today he played so nice that he deserves to be in the finals. That's what I told him at the net, as well. I hope he can play a good finals tomorrow.”

Given Goffin absorbed a 6-0, 6-2 shellacking to Dimitrov on Wednesday night—his fourth loss in five meetings with the Bulgarian—and owns a 3-0 lead over Sock in their head-to-head series, including a 7-6 (6), 6-3 triumph in Basel last month, it doesn’t take a mind reader to figure out who Goffin prefers playing for the title.

“I have the chance to play another match, if it's Grigor, against him,” said Goffin, who is 23-7 since the start of the US Open. “I hope to play the tennis I played today. I'll try to be more aggressive, also go for the shot, and yeah, go for the trophy. We will see. I will try something different than in the group. But it won't be difficult to do better than on Wednesday.

“And if it's Jack, I won the last match in Basel. (It) was a good match. Was a late match, after midnight. Was not easy. But, yeah, I'm sure I have the game to beat him because I did it in Basel. I can take the ball early. I can make him run a lot. He likes to have time to play some heavy forehand. I play faster. I take the ball early. He has a lot of backhand to hit. I'm sure he doesn't like to play against me.”


 

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