Monday, September 14, 2009

Del Potro arrives with epic victory

NEW YORK -- The game's next big thing announced himself Monday night in New York City. But Juan Martin del Potro has been on the fast track for some time now. The 20-year-old Argentine was the youngest player in the year-end Top 10 in 2008, the youngest player in the year-end Top 50 in 2007, the youngest player in the year-end Top 100 in 2006 and the youngest player in the year-end Top 200 in 2005. But those are merely numerical landmarks. Del Potro entered a whole new category in New York: He slayed Roger Federer at the U.S. Open.

Del Potro's stunning 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 victory -- the match lasted 4 hours and 6 minutes -- was Federer's first loss at the Open since 2003, a span of 41 matches and 2,200 days. It was also del Potro's first win over the Swiss star in seven tries. Most impressive of all, del Potro became the first player to defeat Rafael Nadal and Federer in back-to-back matches at a Grand Slam tournament. "I thought he hung in there and gave himself chances, and in the end was the better man," said Federer.

It was a remarkable display of power tennis from del Potro, who seemingly flicked a switch in the middle of the second set after a case of nerves in the opener.

But perhaps we should have seen this coming. Del Potro is 17-1 since Wimbledon and responsible for Nadal's worst defeat in a Grand Slam, a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 semifinal rout on Sunday. Marat Safin, who beat Pete Samprasat the 2000 Open, was the last No. 6 seed to win the Open title. But that win came in a blowout; Del Potro defeated Federer in one of the epic U.S. Open finals.

"It's difficult to explain this moment," Del Potro said. "You know, since young I dream with this and take trophy with me. You know, I did my dream, and it's unbelievable moment. It's amazing match, amazing people. Everything is perfect."

Federer was playing in his 22nd Grand Slam final and going for his 16th major title. He was also bidding to become the first male player since Bill Tilden to win six successive U.S. titles.

"Five was great, four was great," Federer said. "Six would have been a dream, too. Can't have them all. I've had an amazing summer and a great run. I'm not too disappointed just because I thought I played another wonderful tournament. Had chances today to win, but couldn't take them."

Federer had his chances early. Del Potro was frayed with nerves from the first ball and soon possessed the body language of a patron in a Buenos Aires café following a loss by the national soccer team. "The beginning of the match I was so nervous," del Potro said. "I can't sleep last night. I don't take a breakfast today."

And Federer had his lunch early. He broke the 20-year-old on his sixth break point in the second game, hitting an otherworldly cross-court forehand winner that prompted his father, Robert Federer, to leap from his seat. Federer dispatched del Potro in 40 minutes to win the opening set, but the two went to a tiebreak in the second when del Potro smacked a forehand winner to break Federer while trailing 4-5. Prior to losing the second set tiebreak, Federer had been 18-3 in major championship tiebreakers and 4-0 in tiebreaks in the Open final.

The crowd was filled with celebrity Fedophiles -- the guests in his friends box included rockers Gavin Rossdale, Gwen Stefani and his ultimate celebrity groupie, Vogue editor Anna Wintour -- but you could also make out plenty of del Potro supporters around Arthur Ashe Stadium, including Guillermo Vilas, the last U.S. Open champion from South American. What they all saw was a surprisingly tension-filled match. So much so that Federer cursed at chair umpire Jake Garner (on national television) after the ninth game of the third set. Upset that del Potro was taking too long to challenge a point, Federer barked, "No, no, no. I wasn't allowed to challenge after two seconds. The guy takes, like, 10. Every time. You can't allow that stuff to happen. Do you have any rules in there, or what?" When Garner told him to settle down, Federer channeled his inner Serena Williams. "Stop showing me your hand, OK? Stop telling me to be quiet, OK?," Federer said. "When I want to talk, I talk. I don't give a s**** what you said. I say he's waiting too long. ..."

The foul-mouthed Federer did not play as well as the clean-speaking Federer. Del Potro broke Federer at love in the fifth game of the fourth set to take a 3-2 lead. As the match progressed, del Potro continued to pound deep groundstrokes from both wings, especially from his forehand (he hit 37 winners from that side). Federer added to his misery by serving miserably throughout the match -- his first serve percentage was 50 percent. But he broke del Potro in the eighth game of the fourth to make it 4-4. Federer held his serve but Del Potro came back with two aces on his serve to make it 5-5. The set eventually went to a tiebreak after 3 hours and 22 minutes of play. Federer opened the tiebreak with a double fault, his eighth. Del Potro ended up winning the tiebreak (7-4) to level the match.

He then ran away from Federer in the final set, taking leads of 3-0, 4-1 and 5-2 as the crowd started sensing the upset. Federer saved two championship points on his serve followed by two deuces, but then double faulted (his 11th of the match) to give del Potro a third championship point. Del Potro finally won it when Federer sailed a backhand long. He collapsed immediately on his back. "Great tournament," Federer told him at net.

With his win, del Potro climbs to a career-high ranking of No. 5 and leaps overAndy Murrayin the court of public opinion of possible Federers-in-waiting. He barely lost to Federer (in five grueling sets) in the semis at the French Open. "That match just escaped me," del Potro said then.

This one would not.

"I think the first major is always a big deal," Federer said. "Best feeling on the planet after all the hard work you put in. Especially nice when it comes when you're quite young because it comes kind of unexpected for him as well even though he put himself in a good opportunity and position. He deserves it."

After a gut-wrenching loss to Nadal at the Australian Open and questions about his dominance, Federer ultimately had a remarkable year. He finally captured the French -- a soaring win overRobin Soderling-- which earned him entry into the exclusive club of six men to complete a career Grand Slam. At Wimbledon, he passed Sampras as the sport's ultimate Grand Slam singles winner with a thrilling five-setter-for-the-ages overAndy Roddick. He also became the father of twin girls.

"Unbelievable run," Federer said. "Being in all major finals and winning two of those, I'm losing the other two in five sets. Sure, I would have loved to win those two as well. Being so close, I think was two points from the match today. That's the way it goes sometimes. But year has been amazing already and it's not over yet. Got married and had kids. Don't know how much more I want."

Federer's Grand Slam campaign began with tears and a painful admission: "God, it's killing me," he said in February, sobbing into a microphone after his five-set, 4-hour, 22-minute final loss to Nadal in Australia. It ended with his opponent crying at center court of the U.S. Open after passing along a message in Spanish to his parents back in Argentina. Somebody eventually asked del Potro if he was going to take his prize money ($1.85 million including a US Open Series bonus) and splurge on something big. "No," he said. "Maybe cheesecake for my birthday."

He turns 21 in eight days.


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