- There is no shortage of compelling storylines for the U.S. Open semifinal between 15-time Grand Slam champ Rafael Nadal and Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro.
NEW YORK – Juan Martin del Potro’s upset of Roger Federer on Wednesday denied the U.S. Open its marquee match between Federer and Rafael Nadal. Even before the tournament started, the assured semifinal meeting of Federer and Nadal felt like the final, a fitting culmination of a Grand Slam season defined by their resurgence.
Instead, del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, will take on Nadal in Friday’s semifinal. It’s no secret that most fans, especially casual observers, were hoping for Fedal XXXVIII—even ticket prices for Friday’s semifinal match started crashing after del Potro pulled off the upset. But even though the match would have have been the most hyped tennis match of the year, Delpo-Rafa has no shortage of compelling storylines.
Recall that these two have a brief but significant history in Flushing Meadows: del Potro knocked off Nadal in the semifinals on his way to his lone Grand Slam title in 2009, in straight sets no less. This year, Del Potro’s run in Flushing has been nothing short of remarkable. He overcame illness to rally from two sets down against Dominic Thiem, and he handed Federer his first Grand Slam defeat of the year. But del Potro’s toughest career opponent has been his own body: His frequent wrist injuries have prevented him from disrupting the dominance of the Big Four, limiting him to 10 total matches in 2014 and four in 2015. His ranking, once No. 4, fell outside the top 1,000. Had del Potro managed to stay healthy, it’s not a stretch to think he could have won three or four majors by now.
Nadal’s competition on his way to the semifinal hasn’t exactly been stellar, and it might seem like the World No. 1 caught a break by avoiding Federer. The Swiss is 3-0 against Nadal this year, including his five-set thriller in the Australian Open final. But del Potro could very well give Nadal a tougher match. The world No. 3, nursing a back injury, didn’t play his best tennis in Flushing Meadows, and against del Potro, he seemed to struggle with his movement.
Put down your pitchforks, Fedfans—Roger agrees.
“Of course it is a pity, but Juan Martin deserves it more,” Federer said after Wednesday’s quarterfinal. “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.”
Del Potro is 5-8 over his career against Nadal, but they’ve only played once in the last four years—a 2016 del Potro triumph at the Rio Olympics. Del Potro’s forehand is one of the most formidable shots in tennis, giving him a unique weapon to deploy against Nadal’s counterpunching. The Spaniard will target del Potro’s backhand, weakened by so many wrist surgeries, but del Potro notably hit just seven backhand unforced errors against Federer. He’ll likely need that sort of consistency, plus another night of big serving, to upset Nadal.
Nadal is undoubtedly the favorite entering Friday, but del Potro has already done the impossible twice this tournament. And on Friday, we're in for a treat.