The US Open is loud and messy. But this year it displayed a certain precision – an almost Swiss precision – that would have satisfied the demands of the most imaginative Hollywood scriptwriter. In Serena’s absence, four American women stepped up to more than fill the void – such an All-American triumph.
Rafa Nadal played himself into considerable form and blasted his way into the semis to set the table for history.
All Roger Federer had to do was to beat Juan Martin del Potro, the big Argentine with the big ranking who had struggled mightily to beat Dominic Thiem in the match of the tournament, an instant classic that prompted Darren Cahill to say, “In all my years of playing, coaching and broadcasting, this was the most remarkable comeback I’ve ever seen.” Certainly Delpo would be satisfied with his Herculean effort. Against Thiem, he’d nearly quit, but he bravely hung on to win the five-set Grandstand battle.
With a victory tonight, Roger would set up the match the tennis world craved: his first-ever meeting in New York against his iconic Spanish rival – a semifinal for the ages. If Rafa were to beat Roger, he would retain his No. 1 ranking. For the first time there would be a Spanish No. 1 male and No. 1 female – the freshly crowned Garbine Muguruza. If Roger won he would become the oldest No. 1 in history, and the 36-year-old would be poised to win his third Slam in this most amazing of seasons. It would be a feat that would be celebrated as one of the greatest sporting achievements in history.
On top of all this, tonight’s Delpo-Roger match would be a meeting of two of the most beloved figures in the game who are not named Nadal. Here we would see the difference between adoration and sympathy. The world adores Roger – the poet-champion – so graceful and elegant – who is not only the greatest ever, an caring ambassador, a cool metro guy and a loving father, but the only tennis player who seamlessly gives press conferences in three languages.
But when it comes to appeal, Juan Martin del Potro is no slouch. He appeals to the heart. He’s so big, yet so humble. He hits with such power, yet gives us few hints of bravado. You want to hug the guy. Once he was No. 4, and destined to reach the very top. But then his wretched wrists wrenched his destiny off course.
He didn’t whine – fans noticed. Modesty has its own power. He was the ATP’s answer to Kim Clijsters, and the most sympathetic guy in the game since Guga Kuerten. Sure, there is a hint of melancholy about him. We know his mother taught literature, and when he was young he lost his sister – a sensitive soul. We remember the September night eight years ago when Del Potro shocked the world. In 2009 he beat Roger in his prime in the US Open final.
But now, four wrist surgeries later, his backhand was said to be a shadow of itself and the giant would just not have the court speed to deal with Roger’s range of weapons. Plus, the script had been set in stone.
Delpo didn’t care. He came out blasting that best-in-the game forehand that – together with Nadal’s forehand on clay – imposes like no other groundstroke in the history of this game.
Federer may be the greatest player ever, but on this night he was out of sorts. Delpo’s power was punishing. In the eleventh game of the first set he blasted a down-the-line forehand that stunned Federer and the 23,000 fans at Ashe Stadium. Federer then double-faulted, allowing Delpo to break and go on to win the first set, 7-5.
How baffling. Where was the man who’d been on cruise control in his last two matches? Where was the swagger and ease of the master who takes tennis to such heights? Was his back, which hobbled him in Montreal, diminishing him? Off-balance and lunging, he shanked forehands and flubbed sitters. His return game was modest. He made a hash of an overhead. He shook his head in frustration and held out his hands to the sky, as if to ask, “What’s up?”
Still, Roger counterattacked. He’d won Wimbledon without losing a set – here he’d already dropped five sets. In the second set he prevailed in a mano-o-mano 18-stroke rally and blasted a forehand to score a break that propelled him to a 6-3 second set win.
“That’s more like it,” thought a relieved Mirka in the Friends Box and a million Federerians around the world. The match was back on script. We would get the showdown fate demanded.
But then, like Casey at the bat, the Almighty Roger whiffed. The great closer who pounces at just the right moment inexplicably faltered. Not once or twice, but four times, in the astounding third set tiebreak, he failed to capitalize on set point. How could this be? Well, deep Delpo groundies and a cunning drop shot drew a string of mind-boggling errors. When del Potro finally claimed a set point of his own, the momentum shifted. Another huge forehand by del Potro and another botched volley by Federer and the set belonged to the Argentine.
Now we saw the Del Potro who we imagined would emerge eight years ago. His big man tennis was on fire. Five inches taller, seven years younger and unphased by Federer’s aura, the Argentine brushed off his taxing five-set quarterfinals grind. At one point he unleashed a forehand that was so fierce that all Federer could do was flinch as he awkwardly raised his racket in self defense.
Delpo’s supposedly impaired backhand withstood a relentless barrage from Federer and played a key role as the Argentine prevailed in the fourth set. An errant Federer overhead and a breathless Del Potro backhand return led to the critical break in the fifth game of the fourth set.
Soon, Delpo was again lifting his arms to the heavens in triumph. The 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(8), 6-4 winner inspired ecstatic clusters of Argentinian fans who turned Ashe into a rollicking soccer stadium.
The man who’d now beaten Federer on an outdoor and an indoor court at the US Open admitted he wasn’t at his physical best. Still, with a quiet pride, he said his backhand was at its best tonight, that he played with freedom and hopefully he’d recuperate and be at his best against Rafa in Friday’s semi.
For his part, Federer said Delpo “fought like a lion…[he] deserved it more…He will have a better chance to beat Rafa…The way I played… it was not good enough. It’s better I’m out… It was one of those matches where if I ran into a good guy, I was going to lose…I don’t want to say I was in negative mindset, but I knew going in that I wasn’t in a safe place. [I] might have depended too much on my opponent, and I don’t like that feeling. I had it throughout the tournament…I wasn’t good enough, in my mind, in my body, and in my game to overcome these three pillars…[I was] smashing certain stuff in the net that I normally wouldn’t, smashing forehand volleys into the back fence…that stuff sucked…it was terrible…Of course it’s all a bonus at this stage. I’ve had a wonderful year.”
And tennis had a wonderful night – a night with little precision but plenty of high drama that will long be celebrated by tennis lovers everywhere, whether they quietly hail a humble athlete or shout at the top of their lungs, “Olé! Olé! Olé! Olé! Delpo! Delpo!”