After suffering six defeats to Roger Federer this year, some of them excruciating, Juan Martin del Potro gained his second measure of revenge, backing up his triumph in Basel with a 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-3 victory to claim his place in the semifinals of the ATP World Tour Finals.
There’s no getting away from the fact that, due to the round-robin format, the stakes for the two players on the court today were heavily lopsided: del Potro had to win to avoid getting on the plane home, while Federer had already qualified for the final stages by virtue of two wins already this week. Still, there’s no question that del Potro was better and more clinical than his erratic opponent, finishing with 20 unforced errors to Federer’s 42.
It was a staccato, serve-dominated affair in which Federer’s range on his groundstrokes seemed to drift in and out of focus. Throughout the match, Federer struggled to deal with del Potro’s fearsome cross-court forehand, clearly unwilling to be drawn into the long cross-court exchanges favored by the Argentine but unable to consistently or effectively redirect the ball up the line. Still, it was the six-time champion who made the first move, earning three break points on del Potro’s serve at 3-4. The first two were saved by del Potro with an ace and a forehand right on to the baseline, but it was the third that would prove to be a troubling omen as Federer, with a strong position in the point, sent a forehand long.
It was symptomatic of the strange absence of Federer’s usually-reliable killer instinct and it came back to haunt him again in the first-set tie break. With del Potro’s forehand firing relentlessly, Federer made consecutive forehand errors, then had a backhand down the line winner overruled by the Argentine’s Hawkeye challenge. Trailing 1-6, Federer protected two set points with strong serving, but even having what he thought was a service winner for the set overturned by Hawkeye when he was already walking to his chair didn’t disturb del Potro, returning to the baseline and serving another to close out a 53-minute set.
It would prove to be the most closely-contested, with the second and third sets much quicker and decided by a single service break either way. Del Potro blinked and Federer played his best return game of the match to take a 1-0 lead in the second set. While it was enough to even up the match, the interruption to del Potro’s service rhythm proved only momentary and it was early enough in the set that del Potro did not start the third set reeling. Quite the contrary: after holding to love, del Potro pummeled Federer’s forehand for two errors and 30-30, then made a clean backhand pass up the line as Federer’s approach was not nearly testing enough. It was only one break point, but it was all that del Potro needed.
Del Potro’s service percentage climbed into the eighties as Federer’s plummeted, and with the match bedeviled by bizarrely poor line-calling (the umpire overruled only once, and that wrongly) the defending champion was frustrated enough to shout at himself by the end of the match. On his first match point, del Potro found himself scrambling at the back of the court as Federer came in but still made a shot testing enough to elicit a volley into the net which sent him into the semifinals.