No. 6 of '17: Ailing del Potro pulls off miracle comeback versus Thiem

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Juan Martin del Potro almost retired in his match against Dominic Thiem, but he kept battling and the result was remarkable. (AP)

With 2017 nearing its close, it's time to decide what was the year's best match. Steve Tignor will relive his top 10 contests over the next two weeks—but which was your favorite? We want to know, so vote for your favorite match in our poll.

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Juan Martin del Potro d. Dominic Thiem 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4, US Open, fourth round

At the end of the first set of their fourth-round match at Flushing Meadows, as Dominic Thiem and Juan Martin Del Potro traded sides, the Austrian shot a quick glance in the Argentine’s direction. It looked like he was checking to see if the flu-ridden Del Potro was going to put his hand out and say that he was calling it a day.

If only.

It was easy to see why Thiem thought it might be curtains for his opponent; pretty much everyone else in the Grandstand that afternoon suspected the same thing. Delpo wasn’t just having trouble running down balls, he was having trouble walking in a straight line between points. He wasn’t just missing shots, he was sending his forehand into the tarp at the back of the court on a regular basis. Thiem was free to swing away with little resistance, and he did, firing off backhand winners from well behind the baseline. He won the first two sets in 73 minutes, surrendering just three games.

While this highly-anticipated match-up had apparently fizzled into a dud, the crowd didn’t give up or walk away. In part that was because hundreds of them were Delpo fans; Argentina soccer shirts dotted the stands. But it was also because there was nowhere else to go. Scheduled at an odd, late-afternoon hour on a slow day, Delpo-Thiem was the only singles match happening at that moment. Wherever you went on the otherwise quiet grounds at the Open, you could hear the fans in the Grandstand singing and chanting for Del Potro, willing him to come back.

“I took all that energy to change in a good way and think about fight and not retire,” Delpo said. 


HIGHLIGHTS:


Like a tank slowly turning and sighting its target, he brought all of his energy to bear on Thiem—and the ball. The change began with Thiem serving at 0-1 in the third set. At break point, Delpo let out two great grunts, and two huge forehands, to win the point. When the crowd erupted, he threw his first fist-pump in the fans’ direction, but he also smiled when he did it, as if a comeback was still not something he was taking seriously. By the fourth game of the third set, Thiem was taking it seriously; with each miss, he threw an angry glance at his player box.

As the sun went down and the New York noise grew louder and more anarchic, the two men threw haymakers at each other for the last three sets. Each punch that Delpo landed, and each mistake that Thiem made, drew a roar louder than the last—never has the word “loco” been uttered in the press section as often as it was on this evening.

Thiem, a middleweight attempting to stand up to a heavyweight, grew increasingly desperate under the strain. Always a contortionist on court, he tried to swing harder and leap higher than ever—the trouble was, his energy was going upward instead of forward. In the fourth set he had two match points, but Delpo erased them both with aces. As the fifth set began, it felt like the night, the crowd, and his opponent were all closing in on Thiem.

Yet it was a measure of how special this match was that even the loser, the man who had been cheered against for hours, could appreciate it.

“It was a great atmosphere,” Thiem said, in one of the quotes of the year. “I mean, we’re not playing every day in an atmosphere like this. I was enjoying it, actually.”

Del Potro, who stood with his arms raised, soaking in the crowd love when it was over, enjoyed it a good deal more. His unlikely comeback would change the course of the tournament; he would go on to beat Roger Federer in the next round, helping pave the way to the title for the man who subsequently beat him in the semis, Rafael Nadal. Would Thiem have knocked Federer out in the quarters? I wouldn’t have bet on it.

This match was about Delpo the personality as much as Delpo the athlete. More than other players, he invites the crowd into his matches, and invites fans to join his side in the fight. This time they carried him farther than they ever had before.


 
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