Roger Federer entered the 2002 season from a perfect position to attack the place in the top-10, achieving that despite a poor run at Major events, where he failed to reach the quarters. The young Swiss scored almost 60 wins and lifted three ATP titles, including his first Masters 1000 crown in Hamburg in May, earning enough points to finish the year in the top-10 and secure the place at his first Masters Cup in Shanghai.
The other talented youngsters born in the early 80s, Marat Safin, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Lleyton Hewitt, were also there to compete. Three of those would reach the semi-final, including Roger, who scored all three round-robin triumphs to advance into the last four and set eyes on the trophy.
In his first Masters Cup match, Roger took down Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-3, 6-4 in 72 minutes, saving both break points and converting one chance in each set to wrap up the victory in straight sets. Jiri Novak took a set away from him, but the Swiss dominated in the sets he won to claim a 6-0, 4-6, 6-2 victory to maintain a perfect score before completing the round-robin stage with a 6-3, 7-5 win over Thomas Johansson in just 74 minutes.
The defending champion and world no. 1 Lleyton Hewitt stood between Federer and the place in the Masters Cup final, and it turned out to be one of the most thrilling best-of-three sets matches of the season, with Lleyton prevailing 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 after three hours!
Both players had been the dominant force of their generation ever since they made the first steps on the profession Tour, facing each other for already the eighth time after the first encounter in Lyon three years earlier.
Lleyton had the upper hand in their first clashes, improving his lead over Roger to 6-2 after fending off 16 out of 21 break chances and stealing the Swiss' serve six times from 13 opportunities. It was a grueling battle with a great mixture of quick points and extended rallies that kept the crowd on the edge of their seats, with both players giving their best to overpower the rival and cross the finish line first.
Roger had more winners and made almost 50 unforced errors, unable to convert more break chances and stay on the winning way. Lleyton created a small gap in the quickest rallies, a notable fact for him against the better server, while nothing could separate them in the mid-range and more extended exchanges, with more than 60 points that passed the six-shot mark.
Roger made the best possible start, breaking Lleyton at love in game two and painting a forehand down the line winner in the next one to open a 3-0 advantage. Hewitt got his name on the scoreboard with a hold at love before sending a forehand long to fall 4-1 down, with Federer controlling the scoreboard so far.
In 2002, Roger Federer reached the semi-final on the ATP Finals debut.
Serving for the set at 5-3, Roger netted a forehand on the set point and hit a double fault in the worst possible moment to bring Lleyton back into contention, as the Aussie pulled the break back for 4-5.
Hewitt saved another set point on his serve in game ten with a volley winner and three more (the last one with a great forehand winner) to bring the game home and gain colossal momentum. Roger lost the ground completely in those moments, spraying a forehand error to lose serve for the second time in a row in game 11, but the drama was only about to begin after he created two break chances at 5-6 that could have sent the set into a tie break.
Lleyton stayed calm to repel them with winners and did that with the third one after a 24-shot rally before Roger earned another chance to secure the tie break. Hewitt denied it with a service winner and landed another from his forehand to erase another break chance in what became a very frustrating game for the Swiss.
In the end, the Aussie finally wrapped up the set, winning it 7-5 after an hour and no less than nine break points saved in games ten and 12! Roger served at only 41% in the opener but still had numerous opportunities to reach the tie break and fight for a more positive outcome, entering set number two with no room for errors.
Things went from bad to worse for the Basel native, getting broken at 15 in the opening game and falling 2-0 down after Lleyton's service winner. Facing an elimination, Federer saved a break chance in the third game to remain within one break deficit before Hewitt closed the fourth game with an unreturned serve to move 3-1 up.
Federer finally found the way to break back in the sixth game when the Aussie hit a double fault, hitting one of his own a few minutes later to find himself 4-3 down and push the opponent closer to the finish line. Serving in game eight, the Aussie repelled two break points to make another big step towards the victory, having the opportunity to seal the deal on his serve in game ten.
Roger saved a match point with a strong forehand attack and broke back after another forehand down the line that Lleyton failed to control, leveling the score at 5-5 and looking determined to advance into the final. Unlike in the opener, Federer had the upper hand in the crucial moments now, clinching another break in game 12 to steal the set 7-5, rattling off the last four games and saving that match point to prolong the encounter and extend his chances of reaching the final on debut.
Lleyton wasted three break points in the decider's first game, and it was Roger who had an enormous opportunity to move in front when he earned a break chance at 4-3. His backhand couldn't endure the pressure, though, allowing Hewitt to save the second break chance with a short crosscourt backhand that forced an error from Federer at the net.
The Aussie brought the game home with a service winner, mighty relieved he was still on the positive side of the scoreboard before the deciding couple of games. After missing his chances, Roger suffered a break in the ninth game, and like in set number two, Lleyton served for the victory.
He wasted a match point after a double fault, and a loose forehand from world no. 1 presented new hope for the Swiss, who broke back in the last moment and leveled the score at 5-5. That wasn't enough, though, as Roger double-faulted in game 11 to send Lleyton ahead once again, with no second chance this time, as Hewitt prevailing 7-5 after Federer's forehand error in the last game of the match.