“I think I deserved to win in the end,” Del Potro said.
“Juan Martin deserves it more,” Federer said.
Before the match, some of us had wondered about Del Potro’s readiness to play after his five-set marathon win over Dominic Thiem two nights earlier. By the end of the night, it was Federer’s readiness that was the issue.
Over the course of the match, Federer did many things that he normally doesn’t. He double faulted on a crucial point at the end of the first set, and missed an easy overhead on an even more crucial point at the start of the fourth. He let four set points in a tiebreaker slip by. He sent a wild forehand volley 20 feet out in the last game, when he still had a chance to break to stay in the match. He failed to capitalize on Del Potro’s obvious weakness, his backhand. His mood and level of play swung up and down and up and down again from one set to the next.
In short, Federer didn’t look like he believed he should win this match, and judging by his comments afterward, he didn’t.
“The way I’m playing right now,” Federer said, “it’s not good enough in my opinion to win this tournament.”
Federer said he never felt like he was in a “safe place” with his game at this event, and that while his recently injured back hadn’t been the difference-maker tonight, it had slowed his preparation for the tournament, and his “rhythm” throughout it.
“So it was one of those matches where if I ran into a good guy, I was going to lose, I felt,” he said.
And he did run into a good guy. From the start, Del Potro was moving well and belting his forehand. Sometimes he needs time to bring his tank-like game to bear on his opponent, but not on this night. He knew that he couldn’t afford to throw away a set, or two, as he had against Thiem.
Still, it wasn’t until 5-5 in the first set that Del Potro made it clear that he was here to win this match, and that he was going to be a threat. With Federer serving up 30-15, Del Potro launched a 100-m.p.h. rocket forehand down the line and past an outstretched Federer. Like a boxer who has had his bell rung, Federer staggered through the rest of the set. He double-faulted on the next point, was broken on the point after that, and watched as Delpo closed it out with a 129-m.p.h. service winner. If Federer had any doubts about his chances in this match, Del Potro confirmed them with that triple-digit forehand.
Yet Federer fought back in the second set. He used his slice, he mixed paces, he came to net, and he brought Del Potro forward and made him bend on his backhand side. Federer won the set, and when he erased a 1-4 deficit in the third, and took a 6-4 lead in the third-set tiebreaker, he seemed destined to get home safely in this match, after all.
Then, apparently, Del Potro forgot all about the script that said Federer was supposed to meet Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. At 6-4, Federer chose to serve to Del Potro’s forehand, and he paid the price, with a massive return leaving him helpless. At 7-6, instead of stepping forward to close on a volley, Federer chose to step back and hit a backhand; he shanked it wide. At 8-9, Federer chose to serve and volley, and sent a backhand volley long to lose a set that looked to be all but his.
“”I didn’t think I played bad,” Federer said. “You know, towards the end of the breaker, I can do better, sure, but I think the decisions that we both took, me serving, him returning, or whatever it might have been, it just didn’t go my way.”
“He came up with the goods when he needed to, and I helped him maybe sometimes a little bit, too.”
Federer would help Del Potro two more times in the fourth set, with two of the more shocking shots that anyone could remember from him. In the fifth game, he plunked an easy overhead into the net and was broken. In the last game, with Delpo serving for the match at 30-30, he missed wildly on a forehand volley.
But as Federer said, Del Potro had the goods, and by the fourth set he was locked and loaded, with victory in his sights. In the final set, he cracked five aces, won 91 percent of his first-serve points, hit 12 winners, made just one error and didn’t face a break point. His forehand was lethal and his backhand was reliable, and that was all he needed.
While some in the audience were disappointed again that there won’t be a Federer-Nadal match in New York, plenty of others—most of them in the upper deck, singing “Olé”—were happy to see Del Potro at his best again here. This match brought him full circle, back to the biggest win of his career, on this same court, against this same opponent, in 2009. Injuries have kept Del Potro from becoming the champion we thought he would become then, but his ability to survive them has only made him more popular.
“I played really well,” Del Potro said. “I served so good. I hit my forehand as hard as I can.”
What are you—or Roger Federer, for that matter—going to do against that?