WIMBLEDON, England—Throughout Novak Djokovic’s 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (8), 6-3 semifinal win over Juan Martin del Potro, comparisons were made to the match everyone cites when referencing the Argentine’s credentials, the 2009 U.S. Open final. And no wonder: If you didn’t blink, you saw del Potro hit more atomic, felt-frying forehands than at any point since his breakthrough win over Roger Federer in Flushing Meadows, a victory that also saw him rally from an early deficit against a world No. 1. But not everyone felt that way.
“I thought I played better,” del Potro said after today’s classic, when the estimable Bud Collins asked the 24-year-old about the match that won’t go away.
Part of the reason we continuously assess whether del Potro is “back” is because he hasn’t been able to win a match of similar gravity since his maiden major triumph, although he’s come close, both today and a year ago at the same venue, when he lost an epic, 19-17 third set to Federer in the Olympic semifinals. But a year later, and it’s more final-four heartbreak for del Potro, who’s now 2-12 in his career against the Big Four in Grand Slam tournaments, tennis’ four towering arbiters.
“I lost,” del Potro said bluntly in low voice. “I go home. [The fans] have the chance to go to the final.”
For those fans fortunate enough to be back in Centre Court on Sunday, they’ll see Djokovic, but they’ll be lucky to see him play as well as he did today. He had to in order to prevail in, as he put it, “one of the best matches I’ve ever been a part of.” It was a contest overflowing with quality that sustained those watching in SW19 and around the world for four hours and 43 minutes, making this semifinal the longest in Wimbledon history. It was the sport at its operatic best, the biggest plot twist coming in the fourth-set tiebreaker, when Djokovic held two match points, but lost them both.
“I didn’t think I played wrong when I was match points up,” a frazzled Djokovic told the BBC afterward, but he certainly played them conservatively, opting to go cross-court with looping backhands and leaving the point up to del Potro. That was a dodgy proposition, not just at those two junctures but throughout this sunny day, when the 6’6” pro, two days removed from hyperextending his knee, managed not only to keep up with Djokovic in rallies but surpass him with brute strength and surprising mobility. It’s only with that rare combination, after all, that del Potro can pummel the ball at such dizzying velocity and render the game’s best retriever into an admirer.
“He came up with, from the back of the court, some amazing flat backhands and forehands that you cannot say anything but congratulate him and move on,” Djokovic said afterward.
Del Potro hit one of those signature shots just after things might have gotten out of control, midway through the second set. Pressured too much on his own service games in the first set, del Potro fought off four break points when trailing 2-3 in the second, then got a second wind. On the first point at 3-3, del Potro fired the kind of running forehand blast that overpowered Federer four summers ago and sent Djokovic down to the ground at times today. Djokovic’s puppet-like control over his opponents is an attribute that’s taken him to the apex of the game, but on the run del Potro has more room and incentive to take a giant swing, and more court to work with. It was the first step in a love break and an unmistakable signal of del Potro’s intent.
It was a throwback performance in more ways than one for del Potro, who endeared himself to the crowd with not just his shotmaking but his demeanor. In the 2011 Davis Cup final, contested in Spain, a winded del Potro implored his compatriots to rise, cheer, and give him something positive to work with in the face of incredible opposition—Rafael Nadal on clay. It helped del Potro seriously threaten Nadal that day in Seville, and he asked the well-heeled fans the same thing today in England—even giving one front-row patron a slap of the hand. Crowd support was a tangible element of today’s match, which saw Djokovic contest almost every point like a set point, each seeming to carry such substantial weight considering the stakes and level of play.
“They don’t care if I’m No. 8 or my opponent is No. 1,” del Potro said about the fans afterward. “They help me a lot to survive in the fourth set and keep trying.”
The fourth set followed a third in which each player held serve from 15-30 or worse three times. That included a hold from 0-40 by del Potro, who denied Djokovic a second set-clinching break in a 12th game but couldn’t deny him the tiebreaker. He saved that for the match’s climax, the fourth-set tiebreaker. After a set featuring an exchange of service breaks, more blistering forehands from del Potro, more stubborn resistance from Djokovic, and an abundance of Hawk-Eye use, it was the only way a winner would be determined.
Djokovic earned the first two shots at the tiebreaker, and a final-round berth, at 6-4. But the player who hit 80 winners—a full 32 more than del Potro, which is hard to believe—was nowhere to be found. Some of that was Djokovic’s own doing—he had opportunities to swipe a backhand down the line, but passed them up after missing that shot all day—but more credit goes to del Potro, who traded backhands like haymakers in a prize fight.
The former champ teetered when del Potro made the first move on the first match point, taking a flat backhand up the line. Djokovic did a split to save the shot, and got back another, but del Potro’s subsequent volley left a stretching stab as the Serb’s only option. Del Potro, whose hands worked wonders with his racquet and the crowd, motioned for the airborne ball to sail long, and once again his request was granted. He saved a second match point in a much less taxing but similar exchange, and sent the match to a deciding set with an aggressive return of Djokovic’s second serve.
“I was disappointed that I didn’t finish the match before in the fourth set,” Djokovic would go on to say. “But I know that when we get to the fifth set, when I play a top player at the later stages of a major event especially, this is where your physical strength but also mental ability to stay tough can, you know, decide the winner of that match.”
Djokovic’s words highlight something about both men, the one polar opposite that came to mind during a match that will be remembered exclusively for its achievements rather than its faults. In Djokovic you have a player that cannot be counted out under any circumstance, especially at the majors, where the best-of-five set format affords him more time to find his superior form. In the past he’s done this both gradually and without warning—something Federer knows all too well, from his five-set losses to Djokovic at the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Opens, on each occasion after holding two match points.
Del Potro, on the other hand, seems burdened by the prospect of having to persist his sky-high level of play through five sets. He managed to do so against Federer in 2009, but that was the best performance of his career and has proven difficult to replicate. It’s not surprising that his only other win against a member of the Big Four at a Slam came in straight sets (at the same U.S. Open, over Nadal), and his recent win over Djokovic in Indian Wells was in a best-of-three-set match.
“I think he deserve to win,” del Potro said in press. “I know this is the way to beat this kind of player, but is not enough when—you can see I play my best tennis ever on a grass court from a long time, but was not enough to beat the No. 1 in the world.”
It was nearly good enough. But after saving two break points in the fifth set—including one while trying to serve out the match—Djokovic made his early lead stand up and overcame the loss of two match points in a memorable fourth-set tiebreaker. The last time I can remember that happening at the All England Club was five years ago, when Nadal beat Federer in a final many consider the best match ever. That’s the match I’d compare this classic with, even if for many reasons the drama was greater in 2008. But the shotmaking alone might have been just as good, and it will be a tough ask for Djokovic to duplicate the standards when he plays Andy Murray for the title.
“Of course, I’ll be a little bit more tired than I was after my previous matches,” Djokovic said in an answer that looked backward and forward. “I’m not the first time in this situation…where I managed to recover, managed to win the title in the final, managed to feel fresh and play another six hours.
“I’m ready and I’m looking forward to that.”