Bringing Out the Heavy Artillery

by: Steve Tignor | December 19, 2009

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More than anything else, it’s momentum that makes tennis so nerve-wracking to play. Or, I should say, it’s the fear of momentum. No matter how far ahead you are, every time you lose a point something in the back of your head wonders whether it might end up being the spark your opponent needed to turn everything around. It’s brutal: You can’t relax for a second.

For anyone who knows that feeling, watching the 2009 U.S. Open men's final—No. 5 on my most-memorable list for the year—was like seeing your worst nightmare come to life. Here we have Roger Federer, a 15-time Grand Slam champion with a perfect record against his opponent, Juan Martin del Potro, who is making his major-final debut. Federer plays some of the best and most dominating tennis of his career through the first set and a half. He serves for a two-set lead and a seemingly insurmountable edge. But he doesn’t put away a short ball in that game, del Potro comes up with two brilliant passes, and a couple hours later Federer is shaking hands a loser, his five-year win streak at the Open a thing of the past. Let's take a look at the brutal details. (The clip above covers the first half of the match. For the rest, click here. I wasn't able to embed it on this page.)

—Federer is a fast starter in U.S. Open finals. In the six he’s played, he’s won the first set all six times, including a bagel over Lleyton Hewitt in 2004. Something about the quick surface and the heightened late-Sunday atmosphere inside Ashe Stadium must agree with him. He jumped out as quickly as ever against del Potro, going up 3-0 and making a stunning crosscourt forehand pass after running all the way across the baseline in the process. The first del Potro highlight in this clip doesn’t come until 1-2 in the second set, when he’s already down a break.

—To start, Federer seemed to be trying to work his inside-out forehand to del Potro’s backhand, and he had it lasered right onto the sideline. He also continued the strategy of bringing del Potro in that had worked so well in the French Open semis. For a set and a half, it looked like this was going to one more lesson from the master.

—A key moment that was lost in the shuffle: Del Potro goes down 1-3 in the second and faces a break point at 30-40. This is essentially a set point for a two-set lead for Federer. But del Potro gets in a strong first serve to Federer’s backhand, follows it with a forehand winner, and grunts in self-approval. He’s more famous for his killer forehand, but del Potro’s ability to step back and get in big first serves when he’s down break point is just as important to his game. After that point, the famous forehand started to flow.

—From there, it’s heavy artillery time. These guys’ shots come so fast and deep, they seem to pick up speed as they go. Jimmy Arias has said that del Potro is one of the few players who hits hard enough to throw the nimble Federer off balance. Watching from the sideline at this match, I would say that del Potro is the first guy I’ve seen who hits hard enough, with enough depth and low-trajectory penetration, to keep Federer from leaning into the court and creating the way he usually does. From a court-level perspective, the physical difference between the two was striking. Del Potro seemed to be wearing Federer down and pushing him backward—almost looming over him from the other side of the net. After the second set, it seemed to me to be only a matter of time before del Potro would win the match; Federer actually made it much closer than I would have anticipated. But he couldn’t hold him off in the fifth. I’ve heard that Federer thought he choked this match in the end, and I’m not going to argue with him. But it looked to me like trying to hold off the del Potro onslaught finally made Federer's own strokes go haywire.

—At the same time, I don’t think Federer gave himself the best tactical chance to win. Rather than continue to go inside-out to del Potro’s backhand, he started going inside-in to the forehand. And del Potro began to read it. In a big way. But even after DP had clearly found his range with his crosscourt forehand slap shot—the ball comes off the court like a puck off ice—Federer didn’t shift his aim toward the backhand. Afterward, Federer maintained that del Potro’s backhand is his more dangerous shot. Was there a hint of the fabled Federer stubbornness in this strategy?

—Have to love the del Potro player box. A coach, a trainer, an agent, and a bunch of empty seats. Why do need anyone else?

—Del Potro held his nerve admirably for a Slam-final rookie. The transcript of Federer’s press conference afterward has him saying that DP kept a “steel racquet” in the clutch. Sitting in the presser, I heard it as “still racquet,” which would make more sense—Federer was saying that del Potro had done a good job of keeping his nerves a bay. Look at the last point. DP hits a bullet forehand down the line that Federer somehow scrapes back over the net and drops into a difficult position short and low. But del Potro is there to dig it out and send another tremendous forehand up the other sideline for the match. He earned it.

—I’ll finish with my finishing words the day after the match:

Walking through Flushing Meadows afterward, there was a buzz in the air that I was going to miss. I couldn’t believe it, but I suddenly wanted to see more tennis. I got on the train back into Manhattan. The woman sitting next to me, who was coming from farther out on Long Island, asked, “Did you see del

“Yes, I saw him.”

“I liked to watch him when he won,” she said, and she put her hands over face, imitating del Potro’s emotional reaction after the final point. She’d hit it: That was why I wanted the Open to keep going. I wanted to see that emotion and relief that only a player who has won his first Grand Slam can conjure. It doesn’t happen all that often nowadays, which only made the last moments of yesterday’s final that much more exhilarating. Thanks for sharing it with us, Juan Martin.

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