US Open 2017: Federer and Del Potro set first New York showdown since that 2009 final
Roger Federer will take on Juan Martin del Potro in the quarter-finals of the US Open in New York
Few who saw it will forget it, the final here in New York in 2009 between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro.
It was a drama-packed match that took 4hrs 6mins and five sets. World No1 Federer was the five-time defending champion, had not lost in New York since 2003, and arrived here flush from winning his first French Open and a pulsating five-setter of well over 4hrs to win his sixth Wimbledon title.
But the new star from Argentina, already up to No6 in the world at the age of 20, had almost denied Federer during that special Paris run, taking the Swiss to five sets in the semi-finals. Come New York, he would twice come back from a set down to win two emotionally charged tie-breakers, and then win what is still his only Major, 3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2.
The reason for that dearth of more big titles for the big man as he approaches his 29th birthday was a succession of painful injuries.
By the end of 2009, del Potro had beaten Federer again on his way to the final of the World Tour Finals in London, and rose to No4 in the world at the start of 2010. But already, the Argentine’s wrists were a concern, and he would undergo the first of many surgeries on both wrists. He missed three Majors in 2010, three in 2014, all of 2015, and two in 2016. He even bypassed Australia this year so as not to over-stress his body.
But whenever he plays, the magic is not far behind, especially when he is on the biggest stages. In London 2012, he took Federer to a 17-19 third set in the longest three-setter ever played. He lost, but came back to deny Novak Djokovic for the bronze medal.
He did the same in Rio 2016, ranked only 141 at the time. He beat Rafael Nadal in a final set tie-break before losing to Andy Murray in the final: Silver this time. Not enough for one year? Come September, del Potro beat Murray in a five-hour plus match over five sets, to reach the Davis Cup final, and then took almost five hours to beat Marin Cilic, having beaten Ivo Karlovic in four, to lead Argentina to his nation’s first Davis Cup title—all, it later transpired, with a broken finger.
Suffice to say, this gentleman of the courts has become a hero in his homeland and one of the tour’s favourites worldwide.
2017 has seen del Potro pace himself with care after his December exertions, but gradually he has edged from 38 to earn a No24 seeding in New York, and back at the scene of that memorable triumph in 2009, he was rising to the occasion once more.
First he beat No11 seed Roberto Bautista Agut in straightforward style. Then he played the match of the tournament so far, against one of the biggest stars of the new generation, No6 seed Dominic Thiem.
The young Austrian was all over the Argentine for the entire first set, 6-1. Del Potro twice sought the attention of the doctor—he had been suffering from a virus for two days, he afterwards explained—but he took a couple of pills and soldiered on. However, the second set was little different: 6-2 in 36 minutes.
But cometh the hour, cometh the man. The Grandstand stadium was packed—mostly, it seemed, by South Americans. They cheered del Potro’s every point, roared him on to greater effort, and got their reward as Thiem took his foot off the pedal. The Argentine powered to a 6-1 set in half an hour.
The fourth set became pivotal—a marathon hour that almost broke del Potro as he took another pill. Thiem took a 5-2 lead, but del Potro broke back, held to love, and the roars could be heard in Manhattan. Thiem dug deep, though, held for 6-5, and worked 15-40—two match points. But what did the Argentine do? Hit two aces.
In the ensuing tie-break, he hammered his forehand to a 7-1 conclusion, but could he survive a final set? The answer was a resounding yes. He almost broke in the seventh game, and Thiem resisted wonderfully. But serving to stay in the set, the Austrian came under fire again, and this time the Argentine broke. He was into the quarter-final.
If the crowd needed any more reason to cheer, he gave it to them: three exhausted words: “Oh my god.”
As he recovered his composure, he roused the faithful again:
“I was sick the last two days and I came here to play as good as I could, and when I see all these crowds cheering for me, I was trying to feel better every game—and I think I fight like this because of you guys.”
He was asked about his thoughts, should Federer beat Philipp Kohlschreiber, of a rematch of their famed 2009 match.
“Well,” he said deadpan, “I would like to have the trophy after these five sets!”
He went on:
“I think it’s enough for me… Maybe I have the chance to play Roger again in this tournament, which would be special for me.”
His wish was granted around an hour and a half later as Federer beat his German friend in a clean three sets. Yes, Federer admitted, he had heard the noise from Grandstand but did not know the outcome: phones are banned for players on court. But during a brief injury time-out, he had found out—and could not be more pleased for his old adversary.
“He’s a good guy. I know him well. But when he was hurt, clearly I didn’t see him for a long time. I was sorry for him because I think he had a legitimate good chance to become world No1 at that time.
“So I’m really happy for him. It’s a good match to look forward to. Reminds me clearly of the 2009 final that we had, which was an epic. I hope we can produce another good one.”
Federer’s form here has been on a rising trajectory after a slow start while he got a stiff back into fighting form. Two five-set wins have been followed by two three-setters, the latest without offering a single break-point to his opponent. He also hit 39 winners to 20 errors, and dropped only six points in 49 first serves.
He will now contest his 12th quarter-final here dating back to his first victory in 2004, but he has never won the title since his bruising 2009 loss in his only New York meeting with del Potro.
And reading between the lines, it was a loss that cut deep. Asked of his memories, Federer paused, thought, and said:
“I felt like I left that match with a lot of regrets. Probably feels like one of those matches I would like to play over again. Feel like I would probably win it somehow because I should have been up maybe two sets to love… I just had all these chances in multiple moments. The only time when he was really better, in my opinion, was the fifth set.
“Obviously, that was good enough to beat me that day. It was a good match.”
He paused again, and recalibrated:
“I mean, look, I was not too disappointed I don’t think because I had a great run, you know, winning I think French, Wimbledon, birth of my girls. Making the finals here was actually a good run. But it ended my five-year reign here in New York. I guess I was a bit disappointed, you know. But Juan Martin did play extremely well. He beat Rafa and me back-to-back, so I felt like he deserved it at the end.”
Of course, much has been made this year of the hope that New York may finally see the greatest rivalry of them all, between Federer and Nadal, played out on Arthur Ashe for the first time, even though it would have to be in the semis rather than the title match.
Yet arguably, the forthcoming quarter-final between these other rivals will be just as eagerly anticipated.
What is more, as the years have gone by, Federer and del Potro have become firm friends and mutual admirers. They have played exhibitions and charity matches, will share the stage at the forthcoming Laver Cup, and have nothing but good words for each other. The Argentine agreed afterwards:
“Well of course, I admire him, too. Everybody loves him. It will be after eight years again in the central court of this tournament. I know how to play if I want to win, but I will see how physically I feel after this battle. But always is a pleasure to play the greatest guy in history.”
So will a US Open that was battered in its early days by the loss of some of its biggest names—champions Djokovic, Murray and Stan Wawrinka—be rewarded with the two showdowns it has so long wanted?
Wednesday will bring the answer.
Top half quarter-final line-up:
Rafael Nadal (1) vs Andrey Rublev, and Roger Federer (3) vs Juan Martin del Potro (24)
Bottom half quarter-final line-up:
Sam Querrey (17) vs Kevin Anderson (28), and Pablo Carreno Busta (12) vs Diego Schwartzman (29)