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  • Many longed to see Federer face Nadal for the first time at the U.S. Open, but a spirited del Potro had his own dreams in mind and now has a chance to make a second final in New York.
By Richard Deitsch
September 07, 2017

NEW YORK – They have chased each all over the globe, from Monte Carlo to Madrid, from Rome to Roland Garros. Thirty-seven matches, 23 finals, 14 cities, 12 Grand Slam events. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have engaged in the greatest rivalry in the history of tennis, but never on the courts of the U.S. Open. One man, above all, is the reason for that. He carries a forehand of steel and a name straight out of a romance novel.

Juan Martin del Potro, a giant in tennis at 6’6”, is a giant killer when it comes to Federer meeting Nadal in New York. On Wednesday night with tennis fans everywhere lusting for a Federer-Nadal match at America’s Grand Slam, del Potro created his own narrative with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(8), 6-4 win over No. 3-seed Federer. It was a stunning result, and makes the likelihood of Federer and Nadal ever aligning in New York City very remote.

“This is my home court too,” del Potro said with a smile when asked about playing Federer on a court where the Swiss is beloved.

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Federer holds a 16-6 career advantage over del Potro but so often they have produced compelling matches. Five years ago at the All England Club, they played one of the great Olympic tennis matches, a four-hour-and-26-minute classic where Federer finally prevailed 3-6, 7-6(5), 19-17 to reach the gold medal final. It was the longest best-of-three-sets men’s singles matches in Olympic history. In 2009 Federer and del Potro played two five-set matches at majors, with Federer prevailing in the semifinals of the French Open and del Potro walking away with the trophy in the finals of the U.S. Open. That Open win has achieved mythical status in men’s tennis, given it was the only major not won by Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray between the 2005 Australian Open and the 2014 Australian Open, a span of 35 events. It also ended a 41-match winning streak for Federer.

“I left that match with a lot of regrets,” Federer said about the 2009 U.S. Open this week. “Probably feels like one of those matches I would like to play over again. I just had all these chances in multiple moments. The only time when he was really better, in my opinion, was the fifth set. Obviously that was good enough to beat me that day. It was a good match. A lot of back and forth. Crowd was really into it. Started in the day, finished in the night. I mean, look, I was not too disappointed I don't think because I had a great run, you know, winning I think French, Wimbledon, birth of my girls. Making the finals was actually a good run but it ended my five-year reign here in New York.”

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

The 28-year-old del Potro ended another Federer reign on Wednesday night. Federer had been 18-0 this year at Grand Slam events, part of a dream 2017 that has included titles at the Australian Open (he beat Nadal in five sets) and Wimbledon, where he became the second-oldest Grand Slam champion in Open Era behind Ken Rosewall (1971-72 Australian Open). For del Potro, he advances to his first major semifinal since 2013 and given all his injuries, including three wrist surgeries, he will be a crowd favorite, even against Nadal.  

“He's a lefty guy so he has chance to find easily my backhand,” del Potro said. “So I don't know what's gonna be my strategy for that match. But for sure I will try to make winners with my forehands and don't run too much because my legs are tired.”

The first ball on Wednesday went up at 8:58 p.m. ET on a rainy night in Queens. The two players stayed even in the opening set until del Potro broke Federer in the 11th game after an uncharacteristically nervous Federer double faulted at 30-30 and then left a sitter for del Potro on set point. The first set ended in 41 minutes. Federer broke early in the second set and leveled the match by 10:14 p.m. ET.

The third set would be pivotal. Federer fought back from 3-0 down and del Potro gifted him a double fault in the seventh game to put Federer back on serve, trailing 4-3. It was the first time in a couple of hours that del Potro looked rattled, but he rebounded quickly. The players ultimately went to a tiebreak and it was fantastic theater. del Potro saved four set points including a monster forehand that nipped the baseline with Federer serving at 6-4 and the crowd begging for one more point. At 7-6, Federer missed a backhand sitter charging to the net that would have iced the set. Finally, del Potro won the set 10-8 on a great backhand return that Federer pushed long. 

“You know, he came up with the goods when he needed to and I helped him a little bit sometimes too maybe,” Federer said after the match. “But he was better today, especially on the big points.”

In the final set, del Potro played error-free tennis and was massive on his serve, winning 20 of 23 points. Federer saved two break points in the fifth game but del Potro crushed a backhand return winner cross-court for the key break. The final game had a Davis Cup feel, with those in the upper deck chanting, “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé!” Federer missed a forehand sitter at the net at 30-30—“a stunning miss,” said ESPN announcer Chris Fowler, speaking for most of us—to give del Potro match point. At 11:49 p.m. ET, del Potro ended it on a crushing forehand down the line. Federer made no excuses. In fact, after the match, he offered that del Potro was likely to give Nadal a better run than he would’ve in the semifinals.

“Of course it is a pity, but Juan Martin deserves it more,” Federer said. “I feel I have no place in the semis and he will have a better chance to beat Rafa, to be honest. The way I played or playing right now, it's not good enough in my opinion to win this tournament. It's better I'm out and somebody else gets a chance to do better than me.”

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

The Nadal-del Potro rivalry barely draws any conversation given the other rivalries in the men’s game but the numbers are interesting: Nadal leads 8-5 overall but they’ve played just once since the Shanghai Masters at the end of 2013. The two biggest matches were both won by the Argentine—the 2009 U.S. Open (in straight sets) and the 2016 Rio Olympics semifinals (a 5-7, 6-4, 7-6(5) come-from-behind thriller).

After plastering 19-year-old Russian Andrey Rublev in straight sets on Wednesday afternoon, Nadal acknowledged the big challenge ahead in the semifinals.

“Is true that when he's playing well, it's difficult to stop him,” Nadal said of the prospect of playing del Potro. “Probably the forehand is maybe the fastest on the tour. If he serves well and hit well his forehand, he's a player that have the chance to win against, of course, everybody. If I play against him, of course I have to play my best tennis. I need to be very focused with my serve and play aggressive. Because if you let him play from good positions with his forehand, you are dead.”

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Deep into the New York night, 12 minutes past one in the morning, del Potro was talking about what the night meant for him. With all the push for a Federer-Nadal semifinal, the crowd inside Ashe Stadium roared for both players. That is a testament to the resilience and talents of del Potro, who has a big chance to win his second major, eight years after his first.  

“Against Federer, it is not easy to show the fans love [for the fans to show other players love],” he said. “You know, he's local around the world, around every tournament. Tonight people wanted to see a great tennis match. The people want both players to win, I think.”

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