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Rafael Nadal disposed of a leg weary Roger Federer in 1hr 19min.

Rafael Nadal beats Roger Federer in first World Tour Finals semi-final

Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer for the first time indoors in five attempts on the Swiss's favourite surface on Sunday – his 22nd victory in 32 encounters between them – yet the Spaniard's humility prevented him indulging in speculation about which of them should be regarded as the greatest of all time.

That judgment, he insisted after advancing to today's final of the ATP World Tour Finals where he will face Novak Djokovic , was not only for others to make but should be reached in a wider historical context, pointing specifically to the achievements of Rod Laver.

Five years younger at 27 and four titles shy of Federer's 17 majors, Nadal batted away the statistics and numbers, arguing: "It will be very difficult for anyone to improve his numbers. I never saw Rod Laver play but I know his history. He was away for a few years because he became a professional but he was able to win all four [slams] before and all four after. Today the question is not about me or Roger, more about Rod Laver or Roger. When I finish my career we'll see where I am in the history of tennis."

Federer, aggressive and dominant in the early exchanges but unable to sustain the quality of his shot-making on weary legs in the second set, said he had "no regrets" after losing the last match of his most disappointing season since 2002, although he would not declare if he could add to his grand slam tally in 2014, when he will turn 33.

Reflecting on the fact he won only one title all year and did not get past the semi-finals in any of the four majors, he said his priority next year would be, "winning five titles, I guess … something exciting, leaving the tournaments as a winner".

After he beat Juan Martín del Potro in three high-quality sets to reach the semis, it was still a touch-and-go proposition whether or not he could go on to win his seventh end-of-year title here. Briefly in the first set that looked within his scope but the match turned, perhaps, on a couple of missed chances to break in the fifth game, then again in the 10th. The momentum was with him then, as he pinned Nadal deep and hit his ground strokes with dazzling force and precision.

Nadal survived the examination. Once he sealed the set at the second time of asking he began to play more freely – and was mightily relieved when Federer's concluding backhand volley went long.

It was a significant victory. All their indoor matches have been in this tournament and, in nine previous sets, Nadal had won one. On Sunday he narrowed the difference emphatically. He refused to say beating Federer was more satisfying than reaching his second final, adding, "To be able to win the final is much more important than any victory against any opponent."

Nadal now has the chance to cap the most impressive comeback in the modern game: No1 in the world again, after a seven-month break to mend his knees, and reaching for his 11th title in 14 finals this year. He has won 75 of 81 matches and improved dramatically on hard courts, the surface that delivered him such pain for several years.

Djokovic will be his opponent on Monday after the Serb defeated Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets in the second semi-final, 6-3, 6-3.

For Federer 2013 ended better than it might have done. After playing well in the Australian Open – he cites his semi-final defeat by Andy Murray as his best performance – he suffered inexplicable defeats, notably by the hit-and-hope serve-volleyer Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon, before recovering in Asia and Europe in recent weeks. In this tournament he has played some delightful tennis, and came close to recapturing his old aura.

Federer has slipped to No7 in the rankings, however, and recognises that is not the most comfortable place to be, though he maintained: "If it's not world No1, then I'm not that interested in [rankings] – even though it would be nice to stay in the top four, top eight for seeding purposes more than anything else.

"It doesn't matter if I play [the major seeds] in the last 16 or the quarters, to be honest. The points difference is minor. Losing in the quarters is like losing in the first round for us at the top. That's why either you're good enough to make it to the semis and finals, and then especially win, or not. It's really a tour of winners."

Having won 923 matches and 77 titles in his career, Federer knows what he is talking about.

  • Roger Federer
  • Rafael Nadal
  • Novak Djokovic

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