Juan Martin Del Potro may have come in to this U.S. Open like a lamb, but he went out like a lion, scoring a hard-fought and tension-laden victory over living legend Roger Federer, 3-6, 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-2.
Del Potro, who at 6’6” is the tallest player to ever secure a Grand Slam title, becomes the second man to defeat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final, and the first to ever defeat him at the U.S. Open final.
After looking like a deer in the headlights for the better part of the first two sets, the 20-year-old Del Potro came to life, snatching his first service break of the match just as Federer looked poised to put his all-too-familiar vice grip on the match.
“Yes, the beginning of the match, I was so nervous, I can’t sleep last night. I didn’t take a breakfast today,” said Del Potro. “That’s part of the final, you know.”
Serving for the set at 5-4, 30-0, Federer, the holder of five consecutive U.S. Open titles, was two points from a seemingly invincible two-set lead.
But Del Potro magically found a window that was big enough to crawl through.
The No. 6 seed, who will turn 21 later this month, displaying a rare sense of timing that only the true champions ever seem to possess, reeled off four consecutive points, finishing off the game by delivering two improbably clutch passing shots that were perfectly placed along the sideline.
The first was ruled out, but when Del Potro challenged the call, the replay overturned the point. Federer, who has long been critical of the Hawk-Eye challenge system, was miffed by the call, especially since it had led to a break point.
On the ensuing break point, Del Potro’s third of the match, the lanky Argentine intercepted a spinning Federer volley with a running topspin forehand that landed just inside the line for the break, and a 5-5 tie.
“I got off to a pretty good start,” said Federer. “I had things under control as well in the second set. I think that one cost me the match eventually. But I had many chances before that to make the difference.
“So it was tough luck today, but I thought Juan Martin played great. I thought he hung in there and gave himself chances, and in the end was the better man.”
Both players held serve into the tie-break, but as Federer shanked a forehand at 3-3, Del Potro had the mini-break that would give him an advantage he would never relinquish. Moments later, he closed out the set with a beautiful inside-out forehand and a fist pump to boot—suddenly a match that was two points away from being a lost cause was up for grabs.
In the third set, Del Potro looked energized. Hitting unfathomable forehands that seemed shot out of a cannon rather than struck by a racquet, the Argentine seemed to be taking the momentum from the Swiss maestro, slowly but surely.
“Good feeling with my forehand I think was the key of the match,” Del Potro would later state, in a post-match press conference.
It was the understatement of the day.
Del Potro was in a classic zone, and it was awe inspiring to see the almost unconscious ease with which his prodigious blasts were struck. And the blistering-fast forehand seemed to get better as the match progressed.
The long-limbed Argentine regularly scorched winners as fast as 110 mph and he was launching his devastating cross-court forehand with deadly flat accuracy, even in the tensest of moments.
The New York crowds were impressed with the gutsy go-for-broke style that Del Potro employed, and Federer was impressed as well. “He definitely strikes it with great pace and good margin, too. Sometimes he hits crazy ones, too, but that’s what happens when you go for it a lot…I don’t know if it’s the best in the world right now. I don’t think so, but it doesn’t matter. He won the match, right?”
When Del Potro grabbed a service break in the seventh game of the 3rd set, it seemed like he was on the road to higher ground. But Federer quickly answered with a break of his own to level the set at four. They were neck-and-neck again.
After Federer hit a service winner to deny Del Potro another break point opportunity and take a 5-4 lead, another huge momentum shift took place.
Del Potro, serving to stay alive in the set, fought back from 0-30 to draw even, but then awkwardly served two ill-timed double faults to gift Federer the set and a 2-1 lead.
Though it did seem to deflate Del Potro for a period, he managed to fight through it and remain in the match. He looked to be playing poorly, but when it mattered in his first two service games, Del Potro was able to keep his cool and fight off three break points against Federer.
“When I lost the third set, I started to think bad things,” said Del Potro. “It was so difficult to keep trying to keep fighting, but one more time the crowd and the fans helped me to fight…”
Still, it felt like he was hanging by a thread; against a player whom he had never beaten, Del Potro was trying to win a title that he had never won.
Pressure mounted on the young Argentine in the early games of the fourth set—but when he found himself facing two break points in the second game, and another in the fourth game, he was up to the task. A strange shift in serving strategy seemed to relax Del Potro, and as he slowed his serve down to the low 100 mph range he seemed to have better results.
Federer was the first to yield in the fourth set. But again, he broke back to level the set, and a fourth set tie-breaker ensued, with the electrified crowd supporting both players and doing its best to heighten the ambience.
In the fourth set tie-break, Federer double faulted on the first point, and he never caught up after that. Del Potro smacked a screaming down-the-line winner to go up 3-0, but when Federer won the next two points, the air was thick in Arthur Ashe again.
A down-the-line backhand forced Federer to miss a running forehand wide, and after a strange point, in which Federer thought he heard an “out” call, but it really came from the crowd, Del Potro took a 5-2 lead when Federer sailed a backhand long.
Moments later, Del Potro sealed the set with two straight points on his serve.
Federer, who was 4-0 in U.S. Open final tie-breaks, and 18-3 in Grand-Slam final tie-breaks coming into the match (also 1-0 vs. Del Potro in tie-breaks), was unable to maintain his impeccable record in the clutch.
The fifth set would decide the winner at the U.S. Open final, for the first time since Agassi and Todd Martin went the distance on Arthur Ashe in 1999.
After scoring a break early in the set, it stood to reason that it would soon be Federer’s turn to break back. But as the set drew on, Federer’s chances were few. Del Potro held to love to lead 5-2, and when Federer took the balls to serve to stay in the match, his face wore a strange look of acceptance, as if he was resigned to his fate—apparently even the greatest of all time can meet his match on certain occasions.
Still, Federer withstood two championship points with brilliant shot-making to retake the advantage in the game. Destinies still hung in the balance, with just one break separating the two, but the hungry Argentine would not let up.
Three points later Del Potro was lying flat on his back just beyond the service line. He looked like he was floating on an ocean of painted-blue cement, his intensity slowly morphing into exultation, his long limbs outstretched for a moment, then pulled close to his face to hide his tears of joy from the world.
He had beaten the odds and etched his name in the history books aside his heroes: Sampras, Safin, and the colossal presence on the other side of the net who was waiting to shake his hand.
“It’s difficult to explain this moment,” Del Potro later said. “ You know, since I was young I dream of this. It was an amazing match, amazing people, everything is perfect.”
“When I lay down on the floor, many things come to my mind. First my family and my friends and everything. I don’t know how I can explain, because it’s my dream. My dream is done...It’s over. I will go home with a trophy, and it’s my best sensation ever in my life.”