London — Despite losing to Swiss great Roger Federer on Thursday night, South Africa's Kevin Anderson is through to the last-four of the ATP Finals.
Anderson lost his final group match 6-4, 6-3 to Federer, but by the time the players took to the court they were merely playing for who would top the group and who would finish second, following Austrian Dominic Thiem's surprisingly easy 6-1, 6-4 win over Japan's Kei Nishikori earlier in the day.
The achievement makes Anderson the first African in the men's singles semi-finals of this event, which dates back to 1970 under several different names.
Federer's win means he tops the group, leaving Anderson likely to face the in-form world No 1 Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals on Saturday.
That would be a repeat of the Wimbledon final, but if Federer got revenge for Anderson's victory over him at Wimbledon, Anderson might see that as an omen for avenging Djokovic's win in the same city four months ago.
The Federer-Anderson match, pitting two men against each other who each have a South African passport, was decided on a flurry of breaks and break opportunities late in the first set.
At 3-2, Anderson had Federer at 0-30 on the Swiss' serve, but Federer bounced back. As if to punish Anderson for failing to seize his chance, Federer broke to lead 4-3, only to be broken straight back as Anderson used the width of the court to full effect.
Anderson was then broken again for Federer to lead 5-4, but minutes later had the Swiss on the ropes at 0-40. But Federer, who has never looked completely on top of his game this week, suddenly found five excellent points to take the set.
Anderson held his own in the second set for six games, but when Federer broke serve, the South African buckled as a second service break saw the 20-time Grand Slam champion home.
"I feel like some of the things he did today I didn't really adjust to very well," Anderson said after the match. "I thought he used the change of pace very well. I felt pretty good out on the court, but I didn't execute or play at a high enough level to win."
Djokovic is guaranteed his place in the semi-finals, but the Serb needs to win at least a set against Croatia's Marin Cilic on Friday to be sure of finishing top of the group. The likeliest semi-final line-up is Djokovic v Anderson and Federer v Alexander Zverev, but John Isner may yet upset the German's chances in the Friday afternoon match.
Earlier, South Africa's Raven Klaasen and his New Zealand doubles partner Michael Venus went out of the doubles.
They began the final day of matches in their group potentially needing to win just one set, but once Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares had beaten Henri Kontinen and John Peers (replacements for the injured Alexander Peya and Nikola Mektic), the match between Klaasen-Venus and the Colombians Juan-Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah became a straight eliminator for the semi-finals.
The match also had a distinct South African flavour to it, as the Colombians are coached by Jeff Coetzee , the first non-white South African to win tour titles.
He had told his players to go out and be aggressive, and it worked against a slightly sub-standard Klaasen and Venus, winning 6-3, 7-6 (7/5).
Despite breaking early in the second set, Klaasen and Venus were dragged level and then succumbed in the tie-break.
Friday sees the final day of group matches, with Saturday hosting both singles and doubles semi-finals.
Results on the fifth day of the ATP Finals at London's O2 Arena on Thursday (x denotes seeding):
Lleyton Hewitt Group
Dominic Thiem (AUT x6) bt Kei Nishikori (JPN x7) 6-1, 6-4
Roger Federer (SUI x2) bt Kevin Anderson (RSA x4) 6-4, 6-3
Jamie Murray/Bruno Soares (GBR/BRA x4) bt Henri Kontinen/John Peers (FIN/AUS x9) 3-6, 7-6 (7/3), 10-3
Juan Sebastian Cabal/Robert Farah (COL/COL x2) bt Raven Klaasen /Michael Venus (RSA/NZL x6) 6-3, 7-6 (7/5)