Perhaps newly elected Pope Francis petitioned for a little divine intervention on behalf of his Argentinian countryman Juan Martin del Potro. Surely, the Lord knew del Potro needed when it came to his history with Andy Murray.
Del Potro, the gentle giant with the meat-and-potatoes game, has been consistently flummoxed by the devious Murray and his legerdemain-heavy game. Although both are former U.S. Open champions, Murray had outfoxed del Potro in their previous meetings, five matches to one.
But it’s not like del Potro has been conspicuously overmatched. Four of the five three-set meetings between the men before today’s exercise went the distance, and in their only Grand Slam clash—at the 2008 U.S. Open—Murray won in four sets.
Today, though, del Potro turned the tables. Not only did he get the better of Murray in numerous long rallies, he also snatched the role of versatile counter-puncher out of Murray’s hands. Del Potro won an error-strewn but entertaining quarterfinal, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-1.
Murray looked stronger in the first set, despite showing a penchant for making errors that would last through the entire match. He finished with a whopping 49 unforced errors, while del Potro had just 27. Some of those led to two del Potro two break points in the very first game. But when he failed to convert either and Murray held, it looked as if the Scot’s ability to slip whatever noose del Potro tried to fit over his head would once again come to his rescue. Still, the fact that Murray couldn’t get any traction against del Potro’s serve prefigured how this match would go—a detail easily ignored after Murray squirmed out of the first-set tiebreaker.
You could be forgiven for jumping to conclusions given how badly del Potro mangled his chances in that first-set decider. He started it with a mini-break, but promptly turned over the next two points. Del Potro struck back for 2-2, but Murray won the next three points to go up 5-2, with two serves to come. But the No. 3 seed found a way to blow that big lead by losing those two points with unforced errors. Again, del Potro failed to capitalize. Murray outlasted him in a 43-shot rally to end the next point and go up 6-4. After del Potro held the next point, Murray teased a backhand error out of him to end it.
Instead of yielding to frustration, the 6’6” No. 7 seed stepped up and won the first game of the second set at love. He reeled off the next three points as well to leave Murray serving at 0-40. A double fault by Murray, one of an uncharacteristic eight for the match (including one at match point), gave del Potro the first break of the match by either man. He made the most of it, too, holding with relative ease the rest of the way to serve out the set.
By that time, del Potro had worked himself into a fine groove, while Murray was growing more and more careless. Suddenly, it seemed, del Potro was the one throwing in the unexpected drop shot, the one mixing up the pace with the occasional sliced backhand or looping, time-buying forehand. If there was a strong streak of Murray in del Potro’s game, Murray seemed inclined to want to hit his way out of trouble—something we’re more likely to expect out of del Potro, and something that didn’t work at all.
And there was always that del Potro serve, or more precisely that ability to hold. Murray didn’t see a break point in this match until second game of the third set, and del Potro crunched that one away with a smash winner. After surviving that minor scare to hold, del Potro stood by as Murray made three errors, starting with a double fault, to fall behind 0-40. He was eventually broken for 1-2 when he made a forehand error.
Del Potro’s biggest crisis occurred in the next game, which lasted nine minutes. Murray reached his second—and final—break point, but another forehand error helped del Potro out of the jam. Del Potro then held for 3-1 and continued to apply the pressure. Just as important, he cooly resisted what little pressure Murray was able to muster the rest of the way.
Del Potro took a crucial step toward shedding his reputation as the best player never to win a Masters 1000 event, but he may be in even greater need of a little help from above when he meets his next obstacle, Novak Djokovic.