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Steve Flink: Del Potro Ends Roger's Reign

9/14/2009 8:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

FLUSHING MEADOWS---   It is getting late into the evening as I write, and more than two hours have passed since Juan Martin Del Potro and Roger Federer wrapped up their riveting four hour, six minute skirmish on Arthur Ashe Stadium.  I am still trying to digest it all, to find a way to put it in perspective, to bring across the breadth and scope of a five set confrontation that has altered the life of Del Potro forever.  I would place this battle right up there among the five best U.S. Open finals I have ever seen, in a category with John Newcombe and Jan Kodes in 1973, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg in 1976, John McEnroe vs. Borg in 1980, and Mats Wilander against Ivan Lendl in 1988. This was only the seventh men’s championship match at the Open to go the distance, and these two gladiators pushed themselves to the hilt and almost beyond. Above all else, Del Potro got on the board as a first time champion at a Grand Slam event, and did so by ousting Rafael Nadal and Federer back to back in the rarest of feats.

This was a title round meeting that kept even the keenest of observers under the richest of suspense from the beginning to end. What made it so extraordinary was that there were so many contrasting ways it all could have ended. It was so hard for either man to maintain the upper hand that the fans could never quite figure out what was going to happen next. That is always the authentic mark of a match that has lasting value. The suspense must have been almost unbearable at times for boosters of both players as the momentum shifted unpredictably back and forth, as the two players displayed not only shot making brilliance but immense character and almost unimaginable willpower. And for the second time in three five set finals this year at the majors, Federer was beaten in the end by an unrelenting adversary who refused to go away.

Here is how the match unfolded. Federer was primed at the outset, and his play in the opening set was outstanding. He connected with only 41% of his first serves, but won 62% of his second serve points and set the tactical agenda almost completely. He was rallying so purposefully with Del Potro that the 20-year-old Argentine was hard pressed to establish any rhythm from the baseline. Federer was cutting him into pieces with his surgically sliced backhand, forcing Del Potro to come forward awkwardly, making the big man dig out one low ball after another. Moreover, Federer was masterful off the forehand, damaging Del Potro repeatedly with his ball control, depth and accuracy off that side. Federer was utterly controlling most of the rallies, and Del Potro did not have the chance to unleash his powerful arsenal the way he wanted.

At  0-1 down in the opening set, Del Potro put only 4 of 14  first serves in, and that was costly against an aggressively minded returner like Federer. The 28-year-old Swiss maestro broke for 2-0 with a startling forehand pass on the dead run which he set up with an almost impossible angled backhand pass crosscourt from well outside the alley. That golden moment essentially carried Federer through the set. He conceded only seven points in five service games, and looked unstoppable at that stage.

In the second set, Del Potro started with another abysmal service game, missing four out of five first deliveries, double faulting twice, throwing that game away. Federer went to 3-1 and had two break points for 4-1. Had he broken there, he might pulled away and moved swiftly to a two set lead. But Del Potro squirmed out of that game, and kept himself in the set. By the middle of the second set, he was finding his range, and handling the backhand slice from Federer much better. He was steadily increasing the velocity of his shots, finding the corners, getting a lot more depth. But Federer had still not been broken in the match as he served for the set in the tenth game.

Federer went up 5-4, 30-0, two points away from a two sets to love lead. He somewhat carelessly missed a sliced backhand for 30-15, and then Del Potro reached 30-30 by reading a Federer drop shot well, lobbing over the Swiss, and provoking an errant lob from his adversary. At 30-30, Del Potro signaled his growing belief when he laced an explosive forehand down the line for a winner, and then he came up with a running forehand passing shot down the line for a winner. It was 5-5. Del Potro was euphoric. He knew he had escaped from a dangerous place.

The second set went to a tie-break, and it was on serve until 3-3, when Federer miss-hit a forehand out of court. Del Potro cracked a forehand winner down the line for 5-3, and let Federer know that the backhand slice was no longer going to bother him to the same degree on the following point. The 20-year-old Argentine got down beautifully to another low sliced return from Federer, and sent a scorching backhand down the line for a winner. It was 6-3, triple set point for Del Potro. He then played a convincingly aggressive point, rushed the net, and Federer threw up a defensive low that was not that deep. Del Potro hesitated, bungled his smash, and advertised his distress with his body language.

Two points later, serving at 6-5, Del Potro made amends, connecting immaculately with an inside-out forehand winner. It was one set all. Del Potro had averted a crisis, and was going strong. He then broke an increasingly vulnerable Federer for a 4-3 third set lead, and for the first time the crowd sensed he might have a serious chance to win. But Del Potro faltered decidedly at this juncture, dropping three games in a row, losing his serve twice in the process, wasting his opportunity and falling behind two sets to one. At 4-5, 30-30 in that pendulum swinging third set, he released back to back double faults to give away the set, sending the first one into the net, directing the second one long. From a break up in the middle of that set, he had thoroughly lost his way.

But Del Potro had not lost faith in himself, and Federer appeared only cautiously optimistic. In the sixth game of the fourth set, Del Potro broke Federer at love with a flurry of big hitting, and the Argentine screamed in exultation when he took that game for 4-2. As was the case in the third set, he did not know how to handle good fortune. Del Potro was forced into a forehand mistake by a penetrating backhand down the line from Federer, and the five-time defending champion was back even at 4-4. He held easily for 5-4, and moved within striking distance of a 16th major singles title.

With Del Potro serving at 4-5, the No. 6 seed trailed 15-30. He was two points away from a four set defeat. But he produced a clutch 128MPH service winner, which the world No. 1 blocked back long off the backhand. At 30-30, still two points from elimination, Del Potro aced Federer down the T at 131MPH. He closed out that game with a thundering forehand down the line winner to reach 5-5. Federer went right back to work, reached 40-0 on his serve in the eleventh game, but thereafter had real problems containing Del Potro, who kept firing away relentlessly off his forehand side, coming up with dazzling , flat, immensely powerful shots off that side that were unimaginably good.

Twice in that fascinating 5-5 game, Del Potro reached break point, but Federer was magnificent on defense and he held on sedulously. Del Potro responded in kind to set up another tie-break. Now the atmosphere was more highly charged than ever, with a large portion of the fans lending their full-fledged support to Del Potro. Federer began that sequence in the worst possible way, double faulting on the first point. Del Potro advanced quickly to 3-0. He did not lose a point on serve in that critical tie-break, and served it out impressively from 5-4. On the last two points, Federer made two glaring errors off the forehand. He seemed uncharacteristically rattled while Del Potro was in his own world, not allowing anything or anyone to get in his way.

The big question as the fifth set began was whether or not Del Potro had the physical stamina to match Federer’s. The two competitors had been out there for over three-and-a-half hours, and Del Potro had shown signs frequently in the third and fourth sets of a significant amount of fatigue. But he was now living largely off an unmistakable adrenaline, and whatever weariness he felt was deeply hidden. He held confidently at 15 to start the fifth set, and then broke Federer at 30 with a dazzling running crosscourt winning passing shot.

Serving at 2-0 in the fifth, Del Potro survived a critical game, fending off a break point with the wind in his face but the momentum blowing in the other direction. He held on gamely for 3-0. Del Potro was soaring at this stage, sensing Federer’s growing disillusionment with his predicament. Del Potro kept his emotions absolutely in check as the fifth set proceeded. He lost only two points in his next two service games on his way to 5-2.  When Del Potro was about to serve in the seventh game, Federer changed rackets, and ran back on the court, seemingly trying to intimidate his opponent. Del Potro was having none of it. Once he got to 5-2, Del Potro did not want to let go, and he went after Federer full force in the eighth game as the Swiss served to save the match.

The drama was not yet over. Still blasting away spectacularly off both sides, displaying firepower off the flat forehand that Federer found unanswerable, Del Potro reached double match point at 15-40. Federer engaged him in a demanding rally and refused to give the point away. Del Potro missed a difficult running forehand crosscourt wide. Then Federer’s first serve on the second match point was good enough to elicit a backhand return error. Federer got to game point, but Del Potro laced another emphatic forehand winner down the line.

Federer was at last a spent force. He double faulted wildly into the alley and on his third and final match point, Del Potro forced the issue, provoking a backhand error from Federer. Del Potro had won 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2. To fully appreciate what it took for Del Potro to prevail over Federer, consider this: Del Potro won 73% of his first serve points while Ferderer made good on 71% of his. On second serve points, the numbers look like this: Federer at 56%, Del Potro at 55%. Federer hit 56 winners, Del Potro 57. Federer made 62 unforced errors, Del Potro 60. But here is where Del Potro outshined Federer. The Argentine double faulted 6 times while Federer had 11. And Del Potro connected with 65% of his first deliveries, 15% better than Federer.

Del Potro had followed up on a masterful backcourt dissection of Nadal in the semifinals to become the first man other than Nadal to beat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam tournament final. That was no mean feat. It took considerable courage. It took a large dose of pride. It took an awful lot of heart, and no small measure of resilience. In turn, Federer had never lost a tie-break in an Open final, winning all four he had played over the years.

Del Potro became only the second man from his country to rule at the U.S. Open, and the first from Argentina since Guillermo Vilas won at Forest Hills in 1977 to take the Open. Furthermore, he denied Federer the opportunity of becoming the first modern man to win any major six times in a row. Not only that, but Federer would have been the first man since Bill Tilden in the 1920’s to come through at the U.S. Championships six years in a row.

 It must be said that Del Potro was en entirely worthy champion. The progress he has made across 2009 is nothing short of remarkable. He had commenced 2009 by losing 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 to Federer at the Australian Open in the quarterfinals, and his performance on that occasion was embarrassing and even humiliating. He had not competed well, and to lose two love sets in a match of that magnitude was inexcusable. But he had made significant advances over the spring, beating Nadal for the first time in Miami on the hard courts, achieving a big win over Andy Murray on the clay in Madrid, reaching his first semifinal at a major at the French Open.

On that occasion, he lost gallantly in five sets to Federer. That was his sixth defeat without a victory against his illustrious rival, but they had not played since. For Del Potro to topple Federer for the first time in the finals of a major with so much riding on the outcome was the best possible way to break into the elite. He had shown us all summer how brilliantly he was playing, winning Washington over Andy Roddick, beating Roddick again in a superb match in Montreal before losing a hard fought final to Murray.

But everything he did before the U.S. Open now pales in comparison. He has moved to another place altogether. He now will have every chance to build a prodigious record in the years ahead, to make a habit out of winning the biggest tournaments, to turn his talent into something of enduring and growing value. Juan Martin Del Potro has arrived in the country of greatness, and he will be living there for quite a long while.

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