It was a year that seesawed from tear-stained disappointment at the Australian Open—Federer’s “God, it’s killing me” moment after losing the final to Rafael Nadal—to tear-stained joy at the French Open, where he won the title after losing three straight finals.
Between the two, Federer lost to Andy Murray in Indian Wells, to Novak Djokovic in Miami and Rome, and to Stan Wawrinka in Monte Carlo—but away from the tennis court, life could not be better: Marriage to a pregnant Mirka with, Federer confessed, more tears.
Then, as a prelude to Roland Garros, Federer claimed what is still his most recent victory over Nadal on clay to win the Madrid Masters.
More joy, and history, was just around the corner. Back on his beloved Wimbledon turf, Federer bounced back from his loss to Nadal in 2008 to win his sixth title, a record 15th Grand Slam, in a thrilling 16-14 fifth set over Andy Roddick.
“The greatest day of our lives” followed two weeks later with the birth of the Federers’ twin daughters, and it looked as though the good times would continue as he avenged those losses to Murray and Djokovic on his way to the Cincinnati title and a sixth consecutive US Open final.
But there, in the magnificent bowl of Arthur Ashe Stadium, Federer was confronted by a man who was about to become, and not for the last time, a thorn in the Swiss side.
Juan Martin del Potro, 6ft 6in tall and two weeks short of his 21st birthday, was about to do what no man had done since Marat Safin in Janaury 2005 and would not do again until Murray in September 2012: deny a Grand Slam title to Federer, Nadal or Djokovic.
The towering teenager from Argentina had started to make a mark in 2007—a fourth round in Miami and a third round at the US Open. Still only 19, he won four titles from five finals in 2008. By the time he met Federer at the start of 2009, however, he had made little headway against the Swiss, who sliced through him like a hot knife through butter in the Australian Open quarter-final, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0.
But hints of what was to come appeared at Roland Garros, where Federer had to fight back from two sets to one down to keep his French Open dream alive.
Their very next meeting, this time in New York, was del Potro’s first Major final, and what began as the ‘best of days’ for Federer ended as one of his worst. The Swiss served for a two-set lead, Del Potro fired two of his signature forehands to break, and while the famed Federer cool in the face of Hawkeye and (lack of) time violations, del Potro pounded his way to victory in dramatic style.
Del Potro was not done with Federer or 2009, either. Their next meeting was at the World Tour Finals, and the Argentine beat Federer again, in three sets. But after breaking the top five, del Potro would be hit by the first of a succession of wrist injuries, surgery and comebacks.
He and Federer would not meet again until late in 2011, but then in 2012, they locked horns no fewer than eight times, with the Argentine proving to be as big a thorn in Federer’s ambitions as ever.
Sure, the Swiss won the first four meetings with relative ease—give or take a couple of tight tie-breakers, but back at Roland Garros for the first time since that 2009 special, they played a near repeat, this time with Federer going down two sets to love before dominating the final three.
Federer went on to lose to Djokovic in the semis but beat the Serb at Wimbledon before denying Murray in an emotionally-charged final. With the Wimbledon title, the stage looked set for the Swiss to claim tennis’s holy grail, a Career Golden Slam: The Olympics would also be played on the same Centre Court turf.
But once again, del Potro loomed large over the proceedings, forcing Federer to come back from a set down in the semi-final via a tie-break and then a 19-17 decider: 4hrs 26min, the longest best-of-three match in the Open era.
Federer may not have beaten an on-fire Murray to Olympic gold even without that del Potro battle, but the Argentine certainly did little to help the Swiss cause.
Del Potro would go on to beat Federer in the final of his home tournament in Basel, and do the same the following year, on both occasions in three close sets. Indeed all seven matches since that 2012 five-setter in Paris went the distance.
Through the next two years, though, as Federer accumulated 11 titles from 22 finals—and another set of twins—del Potro was once more off the scene due to wrist surgery. But in Miami this week, the stage has been set for the latest instalment in the Federer-del Potro story, where both converge on only their third tournament of the year.
Del Potro, who returned to competition last month to reach the semis of Delray Beach, sailed past the 39-ranked Guido Pella 6-0, 7-6(4) in Miami’s first round to take on Federer in the Swiss man’s first match since undergoing knee surgery.
One can only imagine what Federer thought when he saw the draw—it was probably not Dickens, but more along the lines “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, [s]he had to walk into mine.”
Federer has not played competitively for seven weeks, and Miami is far from his most successful tournament. Del Potro is also relatively untried and tested in a tournament where the hot and humid conditions can take their toll on anything less than 100 percent condition.
Neither man, in truth, may be too concerned about going very deep in the draw—pleased simply to test their physical shape and get some matches under their belts. But if either man does go deep, it will be the result of some decent tennis.
Next up in the draw is either No28 seed Jeremy Chardy—who has a win over each man to his name—or another big-hitting man in Fernando Verdasco. Then comes the in-form David Goffin, with David Ferrer or Marin Cilic lined up for the quarters. Should either make it that far, there remains the small question of top seed and five-time champion Djokovic to consider—and all that before the final.
For now, Miami and the considerable armies of fans that both men command will be happy to see this rivalry—and friendship—in action once again.
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