US Open 2017

US Open 2017: Del Potro denies Federer his shot at Nadal and No1 in blistering fashion

Juan Martin del Potro beats Roger Federer in four sets to set up a clash with Rafael Nadal in the US Open semi-finals

del potro
Juan Martin del Potro is through to the last four in New York Photo: Marianne Bevis

Considering three former US Open champions were missing from New York before the tournament even began—Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka—the remaining two quarter-finals on a wet and windy Wednesday had a very starry look.

Of the four men targeting the semi-finals, three were also former US Open champions: Roger Federer, five times, Rafael Nadal, twice, and Juan Martin del Potro once. And if that was not enough incentive to check out these two matches, the No1 ranking could change hands by the time they were done.

If Federer won and Nadal lost, Federer would become the oldest No1 since ATP rankings began in 1973.

And to add more spice to the proceedings, Federer and del Potro played one another for the first time in New York since their memorable final in 2009.

That had been a drama-packed match of five sets and more than four hours. The then 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 another pulsating five-setter 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 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 his only Major, 3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2.

The reason for that dearth of more big titles for the Argentine as he approaches his 29th birthday was a succession of injuries leading to four lots of wrist surgery. 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 when he played, he still managed to cause Federer—and others—big problems: In London 2012, he took the Swiss to a 17-19 final set in the longest three-setter ever played. He lost, but came back to deny Djokovic for the bronze medal. In Rio last year, he beat Djokovic again, going on to beat Nadal on the semis. And twice he had beaten Federer in the final of the home tournament in Basel.

Yet del Potro was liked by them all—and by crowds everywhere. Federer, obviously still bruised from that 2009 loss, still spoke warmly of the Argentine.

“He’s a good guy. I know him well… I think he had a legitimate 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.”

The Argentine’s problem, however, was that he had come into his epic battle against Dominic Thiem in the quarters with a virus, made a slow start, but saved two match points in fighting back from two sets down for the first time in his career. How much did he have left against a Federer who had come into the tournament with a stiff back, survived two five-setters, but accelerated through the next two matches?

Before any of these questions could be answered, there was the other intriguing quarter-final: How much further could fast-rising #NextGen star, 19-year-old Andrey Rublev go after beating the likes of Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin?

Rublev began 2017 ranked 152, made the second round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open via qualifying, won his first tour title, also via qualifying in Umag, and entered the US Open ranked 53 and the youngest quarter-finalist since Andy Roddick in 2001.

But it would be a huge upset if he was able to top Nadal, and the Spaniard meant business from the start in a ruthless display under the Arthur Ashe roof. Nadal broke immediately, and although the forehand fire-power of the Russian got a quick break back, Nadal would not lapse again. He broke twice and held to love, 6-1, in 23 minutes.

Rublev held off the break until the fifth game in the second set, had a chance to break back, but instead was broken again: Nadal took the second set, 6-2, with a huge forehand winner. And the third set was no different. The Spaniard’s defence was up to the task of everything the youngster threw at him.

Nadal broke twice to seal victory, 6-2, after just over an hour and a half, to reach his sixth semi-final here—and set the prospect of a first meeting in New York with Federer. Nadal certainly looked fresh in mind and body, but then he has yet to play a man ranked higher than 50—a stat that will be remedied come Friday.

With the No1 still in his grip, Nadal planned to have a quiet dinner as he watched Federer and del Potro shoot it out. And if the Swiss did indeed come through, this historic meeting between the great rivals come Friday would have something suitably important at stake: the No1 ranking itself.

But del Potro was ready to rain on Federer’s parade again, bringing to the table the kind of tennis he produced on that memorable day in New York in 2009. It was powerful, unrelenting, and dramatic—and for the first set demanded all the variety and precision Federer could muster. But a nervy double fault from the Swiss at 5-6 brought up break point, and del Potro hammered a forehand cross-court winner: 7-5.

Federer’s serving was only at 54 percent, but he lifted that a little in the second set, got his feet moving better and made more inroads. He broke to love in the fourth game and began to pick off more points at the net. In 35 minutes, Federer served out the set, 6-3, with 18 winners to five errors for the set.

The third set felt pivotal, with the lead grabbed first by del Potro, with pass after pass down the line, 3-0, and then levelled by Federer with a break in the seventh. It went to a tie-break, and though Federer got the edge at 4-2, and again at 6-4, he seemed suddenly gripped by nerves—or was it memories or those tie-breaks in 2009? Four times he had set point, all on his own serve, and could not close it out. And at 8-8, del Potro made a big volley winner for his first set point and converted: 7-6(8).

The Argentine seemed to sense he had his man, and made uninhibited winners at will. Federer held on to his serve until the fifth game, but del Potro cracked a stunning backhand cross-court winner to break.

Federer had one last chance to get back on even terms, 30-30 at 5-4 down, and had the point on his racket, only to thump a volley way wide: Rather than break point it was match point, and del Potro, as he had all evening, needed no second chance: 6-4.

The Argentine, then, advances to a 14th meeting with the confirmed No1 Nadal, and in the knowledge that he has that Rio victory to draw on.

Del Potro and Federer embraced warmly at the net, and will meet again at the Laver Cup in a fortnight. But for now, del Potro conceded:

“I think it’s the best match I played this tournament… I think I did everything well, I served well, I hit my forehand as hard as I could.”

And of the huge support he enjoyed once again in New York, he smiled:

“Well I think it’s my home court too! I know against Rafa the crowd will be tough for me, but I hope you will be cheering again.”

They will, as they always do. Come Friday, the big man will attempt to take one more step towards a famous New York double.

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