Juan Martin del Potro may have only beaten him twice in their 10 previous meetings, but those two wins included the US Open final and the round robin stage of the World Tour finals. On both occasions, both on hard courts, the matches went the distance.
Since then, the former world No4 missed most of 2010 with a wrist injury and much of 2011 in reclaiming his fitness and winning ways.
Federer was quick to add that it was “good to see him back playing well again”. After his own fight-back from a set and a break down, there may have been more of an edge to that comment than he intended, for a del Potro at his best is a very dangerous animal.
And anyone choosing to use the Rotterdam semi-finals as a guide to who would lift the 2012 trophy might very easily have given the nod to the Argentine.
Del Potro reached the final here, and his first 500 final since his wrist surgery, with a storming win over world No7, Tomas Berdych. The Czech came to the Netherlands with a 5-0 match-win record, the Montpellier title and a major part in taking the Czech Republic into the Davis Cup quarter-finals, but he could not handle the resurgent form of the big Argentine—a 6-3, 6-1, 75-minute trouncing.
Even the usually reticent del Potro was up-beat about his performance: “I’m very happy as it’s my first victory against a top-10 player this year. It means a lot for my confidence.”
In fact, it was his first victory against a top-10 player—other than by retirement—since beating Robin Soderling in Estoril last April. No wonder the hangdog expression of the Argentine had been replaced by a near-constant smile and growing confidence.
“I played almost perfect against Berdych today. I’m improving match by match, today I played better than yesterday and tomorrow I have to play better if I want to win the tournament.
“I thought I had many fans here, but tomorrow if I play against Roger, I don’t know if they chant for me or for Roger.”
In fact, he already knew what lay in store because his very first appearance in Rotterdam was a heavy-hitting hour-long practice session with Federer. The fans here have made no secret of their passion for both the Swiss man and his tennis, filling whichever practice court he chose and giving a standing ovation at his every entrance and exit.
Federer also brought with him a recent Grand Slam win over the Argentine, a straightforward, straight sets victory at the Australian Open: “I played him really well in Australia, my 1000th match, so I hope I can play it similar, even though it’s indoors.”
Two other factors had the potential to influence the outcome. Federer admitted to a certain tiredness at the start of his semi-final and a difficulty in finding his rhythm after relatively little match-play:
“I still didn’t think I was hitting the ball as clean but as the match went on, I was hoping that would get better. I think I’ve been serving well all week, and also I think I started to return a bit better, and then also move better, and that’s obviously very encouraging.”
Sure enough, come the final, the power, the consistency and the tactical brilliance came from the crisp footwork and the lightning follow-through of the Swiss racket. Del Potro summed it up in his brief words to the press shortly afterwards: “He knows how to play big finals like this.”
Federer’s opening serve initially unfolded much as that in his Davydenko match. He defended three deuces and one break point but held with a smash, an ace and volley winner.
With his change of tactics quickly established, he stuck to them like glue. He chipped the return of serve low and short to put his tall opponent on the defensive and then opened his shoulders for a length-perfect winner. If the rally became longer, he threw in a drop shot, as he did to break in the second game.
The forehand that had struggled to find its mark in the semi-finals came into play, too. Federer held his ground even in the baseline forehand exchanges. The Federer forehand, at its best, is a lower, leaner and more angled shot than del Potro’s and it was the forehand that broke for a second time in the fourth game. A serve and volley play then took him to 5-0.
Finally, in the sixth game, del Potro out-rallied the Swiss for almost the first time in the match to hold his serve. The crowd roared their encouragement, the Argentine put up a thumb in acknowledgement and, just briefly, he looked like breaking back with a 0-30 lead. But Federer countered with a serve and drop-volley combo and finished with a cross-court backhand winner. The set was done in 33 minutes, 6-1.
This time, it was del Potro who got the serving under way via a long opening exchange. It was a strong statement in the face of a Federer playing near faultless tennis.
The top seed, though, rose to the challenge with another variation on the forehand theme, an angled slice of a shot more at home on the squash court, drifting so wide and low that the del Potro legs could barely bend enough to dig it out.
But in the fourth game, the Argentine began to find more power in his right arm, grunting with the effort of producing enough pace to out-run Federer. He managed it, earning a break point, but a Swiss serve-and-volley play saved it, another took him to advantage and an ace sealed the game. It drew the first “allez” from the Swiss and drew the set, 2-2.
Now the chip-and-charge came into play again, earning Federer another break point. It was obvious but subtle: draw del Potro in only to unleash a passing shot. Yet even with a break against him, del Potro found some extra power on his forehand and two cross-court bullets brought up break point again.
In the most intense game of the set, del Potro roared with each cranked-up forehand to work another break point, but Federer withstood the barrage—and the threat to his serve—with a forehand winner, another serve-and-volley hold and a still bigger “allez!”
Del Potro tried again in the eighth, taking a 40-15 lead, but once again the Federer tactics—and consistent execution—saved the day. A sweet stop backhand volley, and a wide serve finished by a cross-court winner, and the chance was gone.
Federer very nearly closed the deal with two break points in the ninth but del Potro is not a Grand Slam winner for nothing. He held with a run of near-aces but could do nothing about the Federer serve this time. The match was done in under an hour and half, 6-4, and Federer’s arms rose in celebration of a 71st title, his first of 2012. It seemed only right: He was, after all, a defending champion, albeit from seven years ago.
Federer’s words after his match the night before talked of his “winner’s mindset.” Though facing match points against Davydenko, he “still believed I was going to win.” And he never looked as though he doubted here, either. Del Potro put it simply: “He played much better than me today. He is a great champion.”
So the Federer story goes on. This is now the 12th year in row that he has won at least one title, and he made sure to remind the press this week that talk of retirement has no place in his vocabulary, whichever of his three languages you ask in.
“Agassi played until 36, so I hope it’s at least another three to five years…You’re allowed to ask, I don’t care, but the answer remains the same, I will play for some time. That won’t change with as many times as you ask me.”
Good news for the fans, but perhaps not such good news for his opponents.
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