How much of a chance would you give a guy who re-injures an already tender knee in the very first game of a Wimbledon quarterfinal clash with David Ferrer—a guy who also had been dismissed by the Spaniard in straight sets one round earlier at the same exact tournament last year?
Not much. Not unless he was a 6'6" giant with a minimalist game built around an atomic serve and a booming forehand, and willing to take huge cuts and win big—or go down in flames. That is, not unless he was No. 8 seed Juan Martin del Potro, who used those familiar but ever-lethal weapons today to raise eyebrows with a 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (5) upset of the No. 4 seed.
Both men had struggled with injury at this Wimbledon. Ferrer rolled an ankle in an early match but soldiered on, surviving nine sets in his last two wins. Del Potro took a hard fall that tweaked his ankle and hyperextended his knee in his third-round win over Grega Zemlja. While trying to win a break point at 15-40 in the very first game today, del Potro slip-slid and hyperextended his left knee again. He was attended to right on the court before returning to play after an extended injury time-out and examination.
When play finally resumed, it looked as if the match would be a mere formality. Del Potro, clearly favoring his leg, was barely able to move laterally. Ferrer held easily and the big question was not if but when del Potro would quit. How wrong we were.
Apparently the injury forced del Potro to dismiss any plan or desire he had to run around playing patty-cake with Ferrer. Instead, he was going to pull the trigger on big shots—and trust (or is it “hope”?) they landed in.
Lo and behold. . .
Del Potro broke serve in the third game, thanks to a backhand service-return winner at deuce and forehand cross-court placement at break point. The final point followed a fairly long rally that, 10 minutes earlier, it was hard to imagine del Potro enduring. Either he wasn’t as badly hurt as he first appeared, or this was a miracle recovery.
Del Potro struck again with Ferrer serving at 2-4, converting his second break point. With a 5-2 lead, del Potro survived two break points and ended the set with a crisp ace—one of the 12 he would hit in the match.
The second set proceeded with no breaks as del Potro performed what might be called job number one in a match with Ferrer. He kept him at arm’s length during his service games. Pounding down heavy, hard to handle serves; on the day, del Potro converted an excellent 72 percent of his first serves. He backed them up with that vicious, flat forehand.
Del Potro reeled off three straight points against Ferrer’s serve at 4-all in the second set. Ferrer survived the first two break points, but not the third, as he drove a backhand into the net off a wicked del Potro forehand service return. The Argentine had no trouble closing it out from 5-4, and by then a secondary theme has been established: As well as del Potro protected his serve, he was also consistently able to attack Ferrer’s serve. And for all his competitive verve, we know that the more pressure Ferrer is put under, the more likely he is to misfire—especially against top players on big occasions.
Still, Ferrer is famous for never giving up, and this match was no exception. As his situation grew desperate in a hold-after-hold third set, Ferrer fought with greater and greater fury. But del Potro was unrelenting, and there’s only so much anyone, including “the Little Beast”, can do when the lumbering, powerful Argentinean is on the prowl.
Ferrer was unable to get to even a 15-30 lead in a del Potro service game through the entire second set and most of the third—until he got to that point 10th game, with del Potro serving to stay in the set at 4-5. As chances go, it was a slim one—and del Potro swept it away with an ace and a pair of service winners. Two holds later, it was tiebreaker time.
The patterns we saw in the rest of the match vanished in the tiebreaker. Del Potro jumped to a 4-1 lead thanks to a pair of Ferrer groundstroke errors. But del Potro blinked, and in a moment we were back even at 4-all. He scored the next mini-break when he blasted an un-returnable forehand service return to Ferrer’s shoe tops on the baseline.
Although del Potro lost the next point, he had a cushion. At 5-5 he replied to an excellent Ferrer serve return with a monstrous forehand winner, and at match point he hit a shot that was the perfect symbol of his win. After perhaps the longest and certainly the most critical rally of the match, del Potro was pulled way off court on his forehand side. But he managed to come around on the ball with his forehand, and the ensuing shot traveled around the net-post and landed, untouchable, in Ferrer’s backhand corner.
Too good. Which is just what del Potro was on this surprising day.
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