Federer in sublime form

ROGER FEDERER showed no mercy as he demolished Andre Agassi 6-3, 6-0, 6-4 in the Tennis Masters Cup final at Houston.

ROGER FEDERER showed no mercy as he demolished Andre Agassi 6-3, 6-0, 6-4 in the Tennis Masters Cup final at Houston. Federer raced to the title by winning all his five matches and for the loss of just one set (against Agassi in his first match, when he saved two match points). After his first round-robin match Federer dropped serve just once.

Roger Federer, the new champion. He ascended the throne by crushing Andre Agassi in the final. -- Pic. REUTERS-

Federer's win gave him an ATP-best seventh title of the season. It also elevated him to No. 2 in the final ATP Champions Race standings. The Wimbledon champion also topped the ATP match wins table with a 78-17 win-loss record in the year.

Federer said, "It's one of the best matches of my life. The Masters and Wimbledon are my two favourite tournaments, so I'm very happy." Federer, who last year went undefeated in round-robin play in Shanghai before losing a tough semifinal to Lleyton Hewitt, is the first Swiss winner of the year-end championship.

It was a day when nothing went right for Andre Agassi. -- Pic. AP-

The Swiss becomes the fifth undefeated champion at the year-end event since 1986 when the tournament re-introduced the round-robin format. Agassi was attempting to become the oldest year-end championship winner. Federer raced to a 6-3, 2-0 lead after just 33 minutes before a 2-hour 38-minute rain delay forced players from the court. He returned to win the next four games to close out the set to love. The Swiss ace won the third set 6-4 to clinch the issue. It was the first time in 55 tournaments dating back to 2000 Roland Garros (losing to Kucera in Round 2) that Agassi had lost so badly.

The win was Federer's first title on American soil and fourth hard court title of the year. He has now won 11 career titles. At 33 years 6 months, Agassi was the oldest finalist in a year-end event since Arthur Ashe reached the final of the 1978 Masters in New York at the age of 35 years, 6 months.

Even before the final, Andy Roddick grabbed the No.1 spot from Federer. Roddick's win over Carlos Moya (6-2, 3-6, 6-3) in the round-robin match eliminated Federer from No. 1 contention. Agassi, on the other hand, was hoping to win just his second title at an end-of-year event, and his first for 13 years. He won the 1990 ATP Tour World Championship in Frankfurt, defeating Stefan Edberg in four sets in the final.

Andy Roddick waves to the crowd after losing to Federer in the semi-finals. Despite this defeat, Roddick finished as the year-end No. 1. — Pic. REUTERS-

Just how far can Federer go? Can he dominate the sport just as Pete Sampras did throughout the 1990s? The potential is certainly there, and Agassi perhaps summed it up best after the final: "I would say that if you asked most of the players, `who's had a great year, and can still have a better year in 2004?,' they would point to Roger as being the guy."

Agassi reached the final for the first time in three years fighting past determined German Rainer Schuettler 5-7, 6-0, 6-4 in a display between the two oldest competitors in the field. Agassi, at age 33, gave away six years to Schuettler, competing at the year-end event for the first time. The match began 90 minutes late due to the first rain of the week, but action picked up pace quickly as the pair rolled into a re-run of the Australian Open final won by Agassi in rapid-fire straight sets last January.

The first set between Agassi and Schuettler went without a break for 52 minutes before Schuettler got Agassi into trouble. The German landed a forehand to the corner for the 7-5 early lead.

But Agassi then went on a tear, winning eight straight games to sweep the second set and move ahead 2-0. Schuettler stopped the rot as he finally held, then got straight back into contention with a break-back of the stunned American.

But Agassi re-established equilibrium three games later, breaking for 4-3 as Schuettler sent a forehand just wide down the line. After saving a match point in the final game, Schuettler bowed out on Agassi's second winning chance.

Rainer Schuettler reacts to a point against Agassi in the semi-finals. But the German lost the match. — Pic. AFP-

"I had to pick up the pace of my shots in the second set," said the American, an eight-time Grand Slam champion, who said that humid conditions early on made him err on the side of caution in his offence. "I wasn't trying to be too aggressive against him in the first set, I didn't want to be the one taking all of the chances. But I had to step it up in the second and he came down a notch.

"Today was a workmanlike match, I was thinking about him and what I had to do to counter his game. I suppose in the third set when he took the lead again, the crowd helped me out there."

Schuettler was far from disappointed with his showing. "I came here and wanted to play well," said the 27-year-old, who started his year with a final against Agassi in Australia and ended it here. "I had a lot of success during the year.

"I went on court wanting to win, but I showed that my confidence is pretty high. I'm a different player than I was at the start of the season. For me it was a successful week. Nobody in the tournament expected me to be in the semifinals. I have no reason to be disappointed about this week."

Federer blasted 12 aces to defeat top-ranked US Open champion Andy Roddick 7-6 (7-2), 6-2 in the other semifnal. "It's always nice to beat such great players," Federer said. "I had a bad record against top-10 players this year. It's nice to polish that up." Federer had defeated Roddick in the Wimbledon semifinal and was just as dominant here four months later against the 21-year-old American, now 1-2 since sealing year-end number one honours. "I'm upset I lost but I'm relieved the year is over. I'm going to chill out for a while," said Roddick.

The doubles runners-up Fabrice Santoro and Michael Llodra (left) pose with the winners, Mike and Bob Bryan. — Pic. AFP-

Federer won the first set in 38 minutes, finishing Roddick with his eighth ace, then broke with a backhand winner for a 3-2 lead in the second set and again with a forehand winner for a 5-2 edge before ending it after 62 minutes. "He played super out there," Roddick said. "I just felt like he was a step faster than me. He just outplayed me. That's the bottom line."

In the round-robin, the Red Group consisted of Roddick, Guillermo Coria, Schuettler and Carlos Moya, while the Blue had Federer, Agassi, David Nalbandian and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Federer remained undefeated thereby topping the Blue group while Schuettler topped the Red group defeating Roddick and Coria and losing only to Moya. The second place finisher in the Red Group was Andy Roddick, while it was Agassi in the Blue Group.

The results:

Final: R. Federer (Sui) bt A. Agassi (USA) 6-3, 6-0, 6-4; (semifinals): Agassi (USA) bt R. Schuettler (Ger) 5-7, 6-0, 6-4; Federer bt A. Roddick (USA) 7-6 (7-2), 6-2.

Doubles:

ATP Doubles Race winners Bob and Mike Bryan of USA capped their dream season with a five-set win over Frenchmen Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro in the Tennis Masters Cup Doubles final. The Californian twins won 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4 in 3 hours 10 minutes. The Bryans won all five matches they contested during the tournament, but saved four match points against Martin Damm and Cyril Suk in their first round-robin match and two match points against Jonas Bjorkman and Todd Woodbridge in their final round-robin match. Had they lost that match, the Bryans would have been eliminated from the tournament. The Bryans claimed their fifth title of the season and their 14th career team title. They are the first all-American team to finish the year No. 1 since Rick Leach and Jim Pugh in 1989.

Said Bob Bryan: "Well, this one's just so sweet because it's the end of the year. You know, we finished No. 1. And this just kind of puts a cap, you know, proves to everyone that we were the No. 1 team this year. The best eight teams in the world were here. I think the players on the tour have the most respect for a team that can go in here and win with the best eight teams... Now we can really just go party it up, have fun, enjoy our new house. It's a perfect ending to a great year."

Mike Bryan said: "It's really hard to dominate in doubles. I mean, when we walk out there, every team's tough. It's almost a coin flip. You get broken once in a match and that could be it. I think we're just more consistent 'cause we worked on our weaknesses. Bob's worked on his return, I worked on my serve. This is our fifth year on the tour. We've gotten progressively better every year. Went from 60 to Top 20 to Top 10. Now we're No. 1."