WASHINGTON, September 8, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
The Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry is one of longest and most storied in professional tennis. But, in an almost cruel sense of irony, Federer and Nadal have never faced each other in the U.S. Open. In what has been an injury-riddled and emotional year for the sport, the U.S. Open dream match everyone wanted – expected? – between the World No. 1 Nadal and No. 3 Federer, arguably the greatest men’s player of all time, will go unfulfilled for at least another year.
On Wednesday night in front of a lively, packed house inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, the No. 24-seeded Juan del Potro shut down Federer, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4, and handed him his first Grand Slam loss of 2017. It was like shades of 2009 all over again, when a young and muscled, 20-year-old del Potro beat Nadal in a semifinal match before stunning Federer in a five-set final that kept the Swiss from winning his sixth consecutive U.S. Open title.
This time, it took 2 hours and 50 minutes for the four-set quarterfinal drama starring Federer and del Potro to reach its zenith on the biggest tennis stage in the world before more than 22,000 enthusiastic fans, plus a world-wide television audience in the millions.
“I didn’t have anything to lose against Federer, so I played my best match of the tournament,” said the powerful del Potro, now a mature 28-year-old, during an on-court interview after the match ended.
“Juan Martin deserves it more,” said Federer, during his post-match press conference. “I feel I have no place the semis. The way I’m playing now, it’s not good enough in my opinion to win this tournament.”
After splitting the first two sets, suddenly, this best-of-five morphed into a best-of-three encounter. The third set alone provided a tremendous hour of tennis in which del Potro raced to a 3-0 lead. Then, Federer turned his shaky start around to force a tie-break that lasted 18 points and was won by del Potro 10-8. Worth noting, del Potro fought off four set points during the tie-break and didn’t take the lead until 9-8. By then, it was too late for Federer, who had squandered four chances for a two-sets-to-one lead.
“Smashing certain stuff in the net that I normally wouldn’t, smashing forehand volleys into the back fence, I mean, that stuff sucked. Honestly, it was terrible,” said Federer.
By the start of the fourth set, at 11:15 p.m., the Federer-del Potro match had become everything we could have hoped for. “But now, in order for this match to happen – Federer and Nadal – he’s got to win these last two. Can he do it? Of course! He’s won two five-setters already, but he’s got his work cut out for him,” said an exasperated John McEnroe, himself a four-time U.S. Open champion, making the comment during ESPN’s broadcast of the Federer-del Potro match that was broadcast throughout the United States.
Meanwhile, Darren Cahill, ESPN’s sideline reporter, remained objective at the late hour, saying: “I have no preference as to who wins this match, but the tension on the court is remarkable.”
Indeed, at 2-all in the decisive set, and with Federer facing a break point at 40-Ad, del Potro ripped a cross-court backhand past the Swiss for a winner – arguably his best single return of the entire match that was hit two-and-one-half hours in – which put the Argentine ahead for good. With that single turning point, del Potro and his loyal Argentine – make that worldwide – fans could start to focus more clearly on the finish line. The Gentle Giant relied on his pounding first serve and backed it up with clubbing forehands – a lethal one-two punch – that, when combined, made for a beautiful rhythm.
Up a break at 4-3, del Potro served a love game in which Federer never got his racquet on any returns, which moved him to within one game of a hard-fought victory over Federer – and a semifinal matchup against Nadal on Friday. Then, at love-15 in the next game, del Potro hit a reflex forehand that zoomed past Federer’s head. Although Federer would hold his serve, everything appeared to be going del Potro’s way.
Finally, perhaps contemplating all he’s been through with four left-wrist surgeries that sidelined his once-promising career after winning the 2009 U.S. Open just to get back to this moment, del Potro served out the match for his biggest victory of the year. He won match point with – what else? – a forehand winner.
After embracing Federer at the net, Delpo crossed himself – as he always does after he wins – and, softly, blew a kiss with the index and middle fingers of his right hand. Then, with his head tilted back and looking toward the heavens, he raised his spread arms in victory, resembling an athletic Christ the Redeemer. It was this particular image of del Potro that the SpiderCam, suspended on a high wire inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, captured for ESPN’s broadcast and, soon, that began to appear throughout the tennis world on everyone’s Twitter feed.
Looking back on his win over Federer, del Potro said, “I did everything well, my serves and my forehands. I got lucky and made good returns.
“The U.S. Open is my favorite tournament and I love to play in New York. This is my home court, too.”
While del Potro has endured an up-and-down season, which until the U.S. Open produced just one win over a Top 10 player (Kei Nishikori), he’s crafted a five-match winning streak when it’s counted the most and won eight of his last 10 hard court matches.
“I have my ups and downs with the tennis, but when I feel good support and am having a good day, I know I’m dangerous,” said del Potro, during his very late-night post-match press conference that didn’t commence until 1 a.m.
Looking back on Wednesday night’s outcome, one thing’s certain: You can’t call del Potro a villain or a spoiler because he stood in the way of a Federer-Nadal dream match. Don’t even go there. That’s because Delpo is too classy and likable of a player. He’s a professional, first and foremost, who has more than paid his dues. There’s just too much to admire about the Gentle Giant to feel any ill will toward him.
In the end, del Potro played to win against Federer – and he won with his heart. “To see del Potro win, it’s heartwarming,” said McEnroe, in summing up his own feelings, near the end of ESPN’s broadcast. “He’s an amazing young man.”
About the author:
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.