The last 15 months of men’s tennis have been the best of times for many fans. In 2017, a 36-year-old Roger Federer and a 31-year-old Rafael Nadal finished No. 1 and 2 for the first time since 2010. To start 2018, Federer won his first 17 matches and his 20th major title.
But something was missing: an edge, a rivalry, a rebellion—at the very least, a little bit of pushback. Federer won Wimbledon last year without dropping a set, and Nadal did the same at the French Open. With Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka sidelined, it wasn’t clear when, or even if, that pushback was ever going to come.
But Sunday at the BNP Paribas Open, we got it, and we got it in a big, bruising, contentious and highly compelling way. Juan Martin del Potro was the one player in the Indian Wells draw who seemed capable of standing tall against Federer, and throughout the week he seemed to be on a mission to win his first Masters 1000 title. Delpo did both in the final, beating Federer, 6-4, 6-7 (8), 7-6 (2), in the best and edgiest men’s match of the season so far.
Watch del Potro's championship point:
“We played a great level of tennis, we were excited, we were nervous, we felt that on court,” was how del Potro summed it up afterward.
Through most of the first two sets, it was del Potro who was playing at a greater level. He hammered down his serve and forehand, and drove his two-handed backhand with more pace and authority than he has since his return from wrist surgery. He didn’t allow Federer a break point through his first nine service games. Delpo has talked of late about varying his play and outwitting his opponents, rather than just pummeling them into submission. He did both on Sunday. With Federer serving at 2-2 in the first set, del Potro sliced his backhand crosscourt; but instead of slicing it and setting behind the baseline, which he usually does, he raced forward and knocked off a winning volley. Surprised, Federer was broken at love.
For the second straight day, Federer was flat to start. He smothered forehands into the net, popped up his normally wicked backhand pass, and grew progressively more agitated. But for the second straight day, he found a way to turn the momentum around and rescue himself from a seemingly hopeless situation.
On Saturday against Borna Coric, Federer did it by dialing his game back and playing with more safety; on Sunday he did it by playing with a do-or-die urgency—the result was some of the most spectacular defense imaginable from a 36-year-old. For a match that Federer lost, he came up with an inordinate number of highlight-reel shots.
Roger Federer's match point against Borna Coric:
There was the side-spinning approach shot he carved at the end of the second set that sent Delpo staggering into the alley. There was the extra mustard he put on his backhand slice at 4-3 in the second-set tiebreaker, which gave him time to set up for a winning forehand pass. There was the ludicrous forehand-stab get that he made at 5-6 in the third set, which led to an equally ludicrous backhand drop that he hit on the full run on the next shot. Delpo could only stand and stare, and wonder how his 100-m.p.h. forehands were coming back.
He could also talk, of course. This was the chattiest, and most aggro, big men’s match we’ve seen in a while. In the second set, del Potro was annoyed at the crowd for making noise between his first and second serve; Federer was annoyed at delpo’s complaint about it; delpo was annoyed at Federer’s annoyance. By the end of the second set tiebreaker, both players were barking at chair umpire Fergus Murphy, who bore the brunt of this battle. In the third set, Federer drilled del Potro in the leg at close range with a passing shot, and Delpo shot him a look as he walked back to the baseline. Who knows what would have happened if this match had been best-of-five.
“I couldn’t stay calm in the second set tiebreak,” Del Potro said, “...that’s why I talked to the umpire.”
Most annoying of all to Delpo was the forehand he netted on at match point in the second-set tiebreaker. At the start of the third, it didn’t look like was going to recover—he slammed a ball into the court before the first game, and threw his racquet down during the second game.
“I was really angry,” Del Potro said.
With Delpo serving at 4-4, Federer finally broke through, and at 5-4 he went up 40-15. But now it was time for Federer to stumble at match point. Serving at 40-30, he inexplicably tried a backhand drop shot from behind the baseline on a missile return from Del Potro. The ball ended up in the bottom of the net, and eventually allowed Delpo, on his second break point, to clock the shot of the match. What do you do when your opponent returns your 100-m.p.h. forehands? If you’re Del Potro, you smoke one 105. The ball skidded past Federer, and so did the match.
Federer double faulted twice in the deciding tiebreaker and lost the first five points. Something similar happened to him in the third-set tiebreaker against Djokovic in the 2014 final here. Over the last two days, he had come up with all the answers; finally, he didn’t have any left. Federer is now 1-7 in tournament-deciding tiebreakers; on Sunday it was as if, after being behind for so long, and then suddenly being ahead, he was thrown off by having to start on level terms again after nearly three hours.
“People like to see the easy part, how I make it look easy,” Federer said. “It’s not always that. For nobody it’s like that at the top.”
While Federer didn’t make it look easy on Sunday, even in defeat he made a lot of it look spectacular.
As for del Potro, this was his biggest ATP title since he beat Federer at the 2009 US Open, and it felt like it.
“I’m still shaking,” he told ESPN after the match. “It’s difficult to describe in words. I couldn’t believe I’m winning a Masters 1000 and beating Roger.”
“I’m more confident in my two-hand backhand,” del Potro said, “but not as confident in playing the way I would like to play. I’m working on my return, so I take control of the point and don’t run as much.”
In one sense, returning from surgery may help del Potro psychologically. He knows, from his past tennis lives, that he can still improve; and after three surgeries, he can keep his underdog’s mindset for as long as he likes.
“I’m excited to keep surprising the tour and the guys,” del Potro said.
Tennis fans should be excited to see him, too, and should be excited to see him challenge Federer and Nadal going forward. Delpo, a not-so-gentle giant on Sunday, put the edge back in the men’s game.
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