Del Potro outslugs Isner to return to the US Open semifinals

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WATCH—Daily Mix from Day 9 at the US Open: 

NEW YORK— All through this last major tennis tournament of 2018, Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro has been somewhat under the radar. Although he is seeded third at the US Open, he has not been given the same attention as top-seeded Rafael Nadal, sixth-seeded Novak Djokovic or second-seeded Roger Federer, who caused a considerable stir by losing to the Australian warrior John Millman in the round of 16. Those three men have received the lion’s share of the coverage in most media outlets, and deservedly so. They have carried the game on their shoulders for a remarkably long time, with Federer connecting mightily with the public from the time he upset Pete Sampras on the Centre Court of Wimbledon in 2001, Nadal stepping into prominence back in 2004, and Djokovic making major inroads as a sports personality back in 2007, reaching his first major final here on the hard courts in New York.

But my feeling is that if Del Potro had not suffered with his litany of wrist surgeries and absences, if he had been able to build on his immensely gratifying 2009 US Open title run, he would be sharing the spotlight with the aforementioned charismatic players who have captured the imagination of the public over the years and made themselves household names. If his wrist issues had not been so debilitating and forced him onto the sidelines so many times when he wanted to be out on big stages competing for prestigious prizes, this man would be even more of a superstar than he already is.

Be that as it may, del Potro has done very well for himself in spite of his woes. He has not been one of those whining sports figures who bemoans his lost opportunities and keeps talking about what might have been. This congenial fellow simply keeps looking for the next target and celebrates every opportunity he has to show off his spectacular talent at the game’s most famous venues. This year, del Potro has already reached the semifinals of the French Open and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, losing on both occasions to Rafael Nadal.

Yet he is clearly not resting on his laurels. Today, he became the first man to reach the penultimate round of the last major tennis tournament in 2018, moving into the semifinals with a nifty, come from behind, four-set victory over John Isner, the last surviving American man in the field. Del Potro had to work hard on an arduous afternoon with the heat beating down oppressively in Arthur Ashe Stadium. The conditions were awfully challenging as both players dealt with the situation honorably. There was no self-pity from either man. They conducted themselves in a dignified manner, fought hard with everything they had, and recognized that the reward for winning would be substantial—a place among the final four singles competitors on the last weekend, with the opportunity to make history of a high order if all goes according to plan.

The first set of the del Potro-Isner confrontation was just what we expected it might be: fiercely contested, well played and exceedingly close. Not a service break was to be found. Del Potro had one break-point opportunity and Isner had none. Isner released nine aces while Del Potro had four untouchable deliveries. The man from Argentina won 90 percent of his first-serve points while the American prevailed on 80 percent of his. Isner had a slight edge on second-serve points won—71 percent to 65 percent. There was little to separate the 6’10” American from his 6’6” opponent.

Fittingly, they went to a tiebreaker to settle the first set, and in that sequence Isner was magnificent. He missed only one first serve, and did not drop a point on his delivery. He produced a pair of aces, including a critical one on set point with a 6-5 lead. He was disciplined, determined and fundamentally sharper and better than Del Potro. Isner took that sequence seven points to five, earning it with superior serving execution and sounder play off the ground. At 3-3, Del Potro, pressured by an imposing Isner, missed a backhand down-the-line passing shot.

That one mistake made the difference as Isner captured the opening set. He handled the pressure with immense composure. In their 11 previous clashes, only twice had one of these players rallied to win after losing the opening set. Del Potro did it in Washington five years ago and Isner returned the favor a few weeks later in Cincinnati.

But in their other nine meetings, the player who won the first set had moved on to victory. So Isner had some encouraging history on his side. He had garnered the opening set in a professional manner, and had given himself an opening. It is always far more difficult to battle back from behind than to exploit a lead and maintain the ascendancy. Isner knew that. Del Potro recognized his plight. The battle was on, and no one needed to remind either player of that fundamental fact.

And so they headed into the second set in different frames of mind. Del Potro had the harder task to win a set he needed even more than his opponent. Isner looked to exploit his opportunity. Both players knew precisely what was at stake.

The fact remained, though, that Del Potro was fresher physically. The energy that Isner had put forth to win the first set had left himself slightly depleted. The 33-year-old American saved a break point with an ace in the second game of the second set, and held on for 1-1 with resolve. But Isner was not so fortunate the next time he served in the fourth game. He missed four out of five first serves and was broken at 15 by a sharply focused del Potro. The 2009 US Open champion had at last found some daylight, moving in front 3-1, buoyed considerably by that breakthrough. He held at love for 4-1 and dropped only one point in his next two service games, taking the set 6-3. Del Potro won 20-of-23 points on serve in that stellar second set, reaching one set all with one timely break and a lot of effective serving.

As the third set commenced, both players were fully aware that this one would be pivotal, as it so often is in best-of-five matches when players split the first two sets. Isner was in immediate trouble, down break point in the first game. But he got out of it handsomely, clipping an inside-in forehand winner, serving an ace, and taking the next point. He held on for 1-0 before del Potro served another love game.

But after Isner held for 2-1, he had a serious chance to seize control of the set. Del Potro missed four straight first serves on his way to a 15-40 deficit, leaving Isner with a double break point chance. But Isner was infuriated when he missed a routine backhand into the net. Del Potro attacked on the second break point, forcing Isner into an errant forehand passing shot down the line. He would hold on tenaciously for 2-2.

When Del Potro served at 2-3, consecutive double faults put him at 30-30, but he settled himself and held on from deuce for 3-3. Now it was Isner’s turn to fend off a break point. In the seventh game, he did just that with a 136-m.p.h. first serve to the backhand setting up an overhead winner taken on the bounce. He held for 4-3. After a combined total of three straight love holds, Isner was locked at 30-30 in the 11th game but he held on from there with a forehand winner behind his opponent and an impeccably placed serve down the T.

After Del Potro served a love game for 6-6, it was time for another tiebreaker. With Isner serving at 2-2, he unleashed a 135-m.p.h. first serve to the backhand that elicited a short return from Del Potro. But Isner’s forehand approach landed wide, and the Argentine had the mini-break. He swiftly moved to 5-2 and then made it 6-3 when Isner’s serve-and-volley tactic backfired. Del Potro’s return was low and it set up a fine passing shot. Two points later, del Potro closed out the breaker 7-4, moving ahead two sets to one.

With the so-called “Extreme Heat policy” in place, the two players took a 10-minute break, but when they returned it was del Potro who was much more sprightly. He held at love with his 11th ace for 1-0, broke Isner at 30 with some superb returning and held at 15 for 3-0.  Del Potro nearly broke again in the fourth game when he had 15-40 in the Isner serve, but Isner served an ace and then released a devilish second-serve kicker that left Del Potro stifled.

Soon, Isner held on for 1-3. Revitalized, he had a break point in the fifth game after provoking a second double fault in that game from his adversary, but the American—plainly exasperated—hit a forehand long. Del Potro served an ace and an unanswerable delivery, allowing Del Potro to move to 4-1. After Isner held, del Potro held at 15 for 5-2 before having a visit with the physio. His legs were sore. It did not look like anything serious.

Isner served to stay in the match at 2-5 and had a couple of game points, but del Potro was returning too well by now. He broke through to complete a 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 triumph.

Afterwards, Isner told the media, “It’s tough conditions out there, no doubt. It’s very humid I think in that center court. The air is pretty still for whatever reason. Maybe it’s the roof structure. It’s pretty humid and takes its toll on us players, on myself and I think Juan. But I think in all he probably handled it a little bit better. I wish I could have done a little better out there, but it just wasn’t to be. Look, he’s so good. It was a tough match, especially when he gets control of the point. It’s tough to wrest it back from him.”

For his part, Del Potro echoed Isner. “It’s not easy to play under this weather, but it’s the same for all players. You have to deal with the preparation and the heat. But I did a little better than John. I think I played very solid this match. In particular I made good returns every service game. I had a lot of chances to break. I think I played very smart today. I saw that John was a little bit tired also. That gave me a little more energy to keep trying. I played a good match. I don’t know if I’m playing my best tennis ever, but I’m feeling good. I reach another semifinals in this Grand Slam, which means something big to me. I’m very happy for that.”

As well he should be. Juan Martin del Potro is right where he wants to be, back in the semifinals of the US Open for the second year in a row, poised to play his best on Friday. Whether he wins or loses, we can be certain that this man will be an impassioned performer, fighting as hard as he can to make the final, feeding off the emotions of the New York fans who seems to celebrate his every move. Who could ask for more than that?

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