Del Potro surges back vs Thiem at US Open – and on to year’s end
For this final part, the tour has returned to hard courts, finally moving indoors for London's season finale
The continuing saga of Argentine del Potro cranked up throughout a season that did not even begin for the injury-blighted big man until late February.
Ranked 42, he drew the short straw time and again, losing to Novak Djokovic in Acapulco, Indian Wells and Rome, to Federer in Miami, to Murray at Roland Garros—drawing all of them unseasonably early. But by the US Open, del Potro would re-emerge as one of the sport’s finest competitors at the home of his only Major victory.
It also renewed one of his greatest rivalries, with friend and foe Federer, who he had time and again taken to the wire in big matches. Until Miami this year, every match since Indian Wells in 2012 had gone the distance—and del Potro had twice denied Federer the title in home-town Basel.
He would achieve his first victory over Federer since that last Basel title in the quarters in New York, but he earned that showdown courtesy of one of the matches of the year, against Thiem in the fourth round.
In my own words
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—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 in three exhausted words: “Oh my god.”
Del Potro would lose to Nadal in the semis, but again he would press Federer to the limit in two more 2017 matches, winning the opening set in both Shanghai and Basel. We can only lick lips in anticipation of their 2018 story.
Laver Cup: Fedal, NextGen, McEnroe and Borg—marriages made in heaven
No, not an ATP event, nor a Major, but this was undoubtedly one of the weekends of the year for tennis fans—and for some of the sport’s most revered players.
There were plenty who were sceptical, even critical, of this departure from the tour, a brainchild of Federer and brought to fruition against big odds over three days in September. Could the Swiss really pull off this inter-continental contest created in celebration of Rod Laver? Of course.
With his own star power, plus that of his great rival and friend Nadal, there was little doubt this would be a crowd-pleaser. With a dash of youthful zest and talent from young stars like Kyrgios, Shapovalov, Zverev and Jack Sock, plus some of the season’s biggest stalwarts, Querrey, Isner and Cilic, the event took flight.
Stir in the old and famed rivalry of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg as captains, with Laver himself sitting courtside for every match—plus some creative innovations in the format—and all generations were covered. But it was the passion, the commitment, and the quality of the tennis that lifted this out of the ordinary.
In my own words
When it started, there was a pace and a drama to proceedings: time short between games and sets, and punctuated by high-volume snippets of video.
But alongside the on-court drama was the one played out by fellow players: a feast of body-language and relationship-building… There was almost as much fun to be had watching the interactions on the benches between super-stars Federer and Nadal, newer rivals Thiem and Zverev, and fresh-faced teenagers Shapovalov and Frances Tiafoe.
Meanwhile, Borg and McEnroe played out their own drama of contrasts: McEnroe frantically chewing, brow furrowed, hands clasped in his lap. Borg? Leaning back, legs crossed, arm draped along the bench. Still the coolest man in the building.
But if the entire O2 arena went into overdrive for the first, and probably only, doubles pairing of Federer and Nadal, the tournament reached a stunning crescendo for its tennis in a remarkable replay of that Miami match between Federer vs Kyrgios.
This time, the winner would seal the Cup, and Kyrgios led 8-5 in the deciding tie-breaker, and had match point, 9-8, before Federer fought back for victory, 4-6, 7-6(6), 11-9. And the abiding image will remain that of Nadal leaping down to the court to hurl himself into Federer’s arms.
Whether future playings of this event can ever match the emotion, quality and history-making of Prague, who knows: But it was one hell of a ride.
Goffin and Dimitrov stand up for 90s generation at World Tour Finals
The top players of the year, Nadal and Federer, headed the groups at this year’s World Tour Finals. But Nadal pulled out after one match with knee injury, and Federer—who arrived here with a tour leading seven titles and unbeaten through Shanghai and Basel—struggled to keep his 36-year-old body fired-up: He lost a punishing three-set semi-final.
All of which helped make this the year when the ‘90s generation’ could break the glass ceiling, and give new players with new styles the chance to impress a world of new fans.
Half the players to qualify for the season finale were debutants, which rose to five out of nine once Pablo Carreno Busta took the place of Nadal. With Thiem, the tally of players born in the 1990s rose to six. Already, then, the tournament had marked milestones, not least seeing in three debutants in the semis for the first time. But the last two men standing would push the boundaries still further: Dimitrov and David Goffin.
For the first time, two debutants would battle for this title. Both, the new No3 Dimitrov and new No7 Goffin, had already achieved career high rankings. And Goffin, by beating first Nadal in the round-robins and then Federer in the semis, became only the sixth person ever to beat both stars in the same tournament. He had never beaten either man before.
For a couple of hours, however, the two 26 year olds would have to put all the weight of those achievements to one side.
That looked a harder task for Goffin: Dimitrov had a 4-1 lead in their head-to-head, and the Bulgarian had inflicted a brutal defeat on Goffin in the round-robins, 6-0, 6-2. But Goffin had produced equally spectacular tennis—and mental resolve—to overcome Nadal, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4, then dismiss Thiem for the loss of only five games, and finally to hit back from a bruising opening set against Federer, 2-6, to dominate the Swiss.
All that aside, however, fans had the chance to revel in tennis played by two of the most athletic and nimble men on the tour. And it was no accident that both had built huge followings with their charm, sportsmanship and modesty.
That they had captured the imagination was clear from the first point. Even the nose-bleed seats in the vast O2 were full, and once both Goffin and Dimitrov began to ply their precision exchanges, flat and fast, off both wings, the crowd was fully engaged.
It would take two and a half hours and three compelling sets to determine Dimitrov as the champion, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, in one of the best O2 finals in years—a bitter-sweet but wholly memorable conclusion to the season.
In my own words
Goffin, as is the way, was called to collect his trophy first, a despondent figure, but gracious to the end: “It was a fantastic week of course. I would like to congratulate Grigor for a fantastic week and a fantastic year. It was a special week for me, a week with a lot of emotion and a lot of fatigue. Now I am feeling tired but it was an amazing week.”
Dimitrov responded in kind, a generous and well-loved champion.
“It is such an honour to play here. This week has been one of the best I have had. David is such a tremendous guy, forget the tennis. He is one of the most improved players this past week and months. It was an unbelievable effort. I am very proud to play him in the final.”
Dimitrov left London ranked second only to Nadal and Federer—and surely tipped to equal if not excel his semi run at the Australian Open.
To qualify for London, Goffin had fought back from an accident at Roland Garros, missed the whole grass season, then put together back-to-back wins in Shenzhen and Tokyo and made the semis in Basel. All the while, he was the mainstay of Belgium’s Davis Cup run to a second final in three years.
He would play some truly stunning tennis to win his rubbers in Lille, though France still denied the Belgians. But Goffin has since been photographed on holiday with the same French players: Friendship first and last—and displayed by two fine new champions in the last tour match of 2017.
WTA review of 2017 begins Monday