NEW YORK—Of all the top-player rivalries on the ATP tour, Djokovic vs. Del Potro may have spent the most time under the radar. They’ve played 18 times over the course of 11 years. They’ve produced a few thrillers in that time—their Wimbledon semifinal and Shanghai final in 2013, in particular, come to mind. And they’ve played two matches at the Olympics that were significant in each other’s careers. If there’s an oddity to their head-to-head history, it’s that while Djokovic leads it 14-4, Del Potro won perhaps their two most emotional meetings, at the London and Rio Games. Both times he ended up with a medal, and Djokovic didn’t.
Now, finally, the Serb and the Argentine will share a proper stage together. This will be their first Grand Slam final, and it will be the first time that Delpo has played a title match at a major since he won the US Open nine years ago. On the one hand, he’ll like the court, the setting and the fans, who will be “Olé”-ing for him from the upper seats all night. On the other hand, he may not like the opponent. Djokovic has won both of their matches in New York, in 2007 and 2012, in straight sets. He has also won their last meetings, which all came in 2017, when the Serb wasn’t recording many other quality wins.
So does Del Potro stand any sort of chance? Yes. The energy in the building will be with him. He has won a US Open final before, against Roger Federer. And while Djokovic is usually too quick and consistent for Del Potro, that consistency also gives the big man a chance to find his groove on his ground strokes. When he does, his shots are more powerful than Djokovic’s, and they could carry him to a win. That’s what happened over the course of five sets against Federer in 2009; once Delpo was locked in, no one was going to stop him.
Still, that’s the less likely scenario on Sunday. The more likely scenario is that Djokovic has success moving Del Potro around, keeping him out of his rhythm, and retrieving and counterpunching his way to victory. Djokovic played with high-level ruthlessness against Kei Nishikori on Friday, and I get the sense he’s hungry enough to keep that attitude and level up with a chance for major title No. 14 on the line. Djokovic has lost a couple of US Open finals—to Andy Murray in 2012 and Stan Wawrinka in 2016—that he’d like to have back; he’s not going to want to regret another. And while the crowd will likely be against him, that’s not always the worst thing that can happen to Djokovic in a big match.
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