- The SI Tennis crew identifies keys to the matchup and makes predictions for Sunday's U.S. Open final between Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro.
Sunday's U.S. Open final will feature two resurgent superstars: Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic.
Del Potro is back in a Grand Slam final for the first time since he won his lone major at this tournament in 2009. Since then, he's undergone two wrist surgeries and was contemplating quitting tennis in 2015.
Djokovic missed this tournament last year due to an elbow injury that eventually required surgery. The Serbian came back to win Wimbledon in July and is seeking his 14th Grand Slam title, which would tie Pete Sampras for third all-time.
The stage is set for a fantastic spectacle on Arthur Ashe. We asked our SI Tennis crew three simple questions relating to the match. Here's how they responded.
What is the key to the match for del Potro?
Jon Wertheim: There was a time when the knee-jerk response would have been “forehand forehand forehand.” But del Potro has been so impressive this tournament for a variety of reasons. His backhand is improving in real time. (Note how he hung with Nadal off the let side in the semis.) His serve is a weapon. He gets better and better at using his reach. He has been efficient in the office—not least yesterday when he only needed two hours on court on account of Nadal’s injury. He rides the crowd; so much so that he has imported a cheering section, a JMDP Block so to speak. And then there’s the forehand.
Stanley Kay: Del Potro's backhand has significantly improved since his return from a wrist injury in early 2016, but I think Djokovic will try to test Delpo's two-hander early and often. Against Rafael Nadal, del Potro found a good rhythm on his backhand side, limiting his unforced errors—particularly in the second set—and striking nine winners. If he can establish his backhand as a weapon early in this match, he'll make Djokovic's job that much more difficult.
Daniel Rapaport: Get the crowd into it early and often. The big Argentine feeds off these New York crowds, which have adopted him and seemed to be outright favoring him over the beloved Rafael Nadal on Friday. He need to come out swinging early and often; he doesn't want to get into long rallies with Djokovic. He needs to make use of his enormous forehand and play with nothing to lose.
Jamie Lisanti: No doubt the player of the summer on the men’s side, Djokovic comes into this match following a straight-sets semifinal win and with a major title at Wimbledon already on his resume for 2018. The Serb is certainly the fitter of the two men and Sunday’s weather looks as though it will be cooler and rainy, which will make the ball move that much faster and play into Djokvic’s superb fitness. Djokovic is also the best returner in the men’s game—while del Potro’s blazing forehand and booming serve have gotten him this far in the tournament, Djokovic has the ability to negate that power and frustrate del Potro just enough to make him falter.
What is the key to the match for Djokovic?
JW: Djokovic’s last Major final was eight weeks ago. DelPotro’s was nine years ago. Djokovic owns a 14-4 record against DelPo, including their last hardocurt encounter. DelPotro has a hard time hitting through the Djokovic defense. And Djokovic has some rough Week One matches, but it’s been light lifting since then including a straight sets semifinal win. If Djokovic can neutralize the rallies and turn this into a track meet, he’ll be the better for it.
SK: Djokovic remains one of the best—if not the best—returner on tour, and I think his ability to mitigate del Potro's formidable first serve could determine the outcome of this match. Djokovic forced 17 break point chances against Kei Nishikori, and only converted four. If Djokovic creates that many opportunities against del Potro, that will spell trouble for the Argentinian. And another key : He can't let what will surely be a rabidly pro-DelPo crowd affect his game."
DR: Do absolutely nothing different than he did on Friday in a dominant performance over Kei Nishikori. He's clearly the world's best player on these slow hard courts, so as long as he plays his game, he'll be in control.
JL: Djokovic leads the head-to-head against del Potro by a lopsided 14-4 mark. While del Potro’s forehand is a nonnegotiable key to the match against the surging Serb, I think the rowdy, pro-Argentinean crowd will be a big factor for del Potro. If he finds the magic in the shouts of “Olé, olé, olé, olé, DELPO!” and uses that support to keep his engine going and the forehand firing against Djokovic, we’re going to have one hell of a match. Also, don’t forget: del Potro should be well-rested after Rafael Nadal’s retirement in the semifinals and if he can utilize that built-up energy, del Potro could be a champion once again in New York.
Who wins the match?
JW: On paper it’s probably 60/40 Djokovic, seedings be damned. But I think del Potro has a real chance. I'll take him in a match resembling the 2016 final, when Wawrinka hard around, drafted off the crowd energy and won a rollicking final. I’ll say Djokovic in five but the range of options is vast
SK: I picked del Potro to win the tournament before it started, and while I'm a bit nervous about his poor record (0-4) against Djokovic in Grand Slams—not to mention Djokovic's excellent form—I'm sticking with my original prediction. Delpo wins in a five-set classic.
DR: I went with Djokovic before the tournament and I'm sticking with him. He's back to his ruthless best. Four sets.
JL: After Saturday’s dramatic women’s final where 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams was defeated by 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, I’m going to choose the likely less popular pick for Sunday: Juan Martin del Potro, in four sets. The sounds of “Olé, olé, olé, olé, DELPO!” will be reverberating through the streets of New York through Tuesday.