From 1939 to 1941, legendary boxer Joe Louis defended his heavyweight title 13 times in 29 months. His hapless foes, including “Two-Ton” Tony Galento and Tony “Baby-Tank” Musto, were called “the bums of the month.”
It was a cruel characterization. Now we certainly don’t want to cast aspersions on Roger Federer’s recent opponents. But in the past 25 months he’s only had to face his top foes, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka, on rare occasions. Until the Australian Open final, the foes he faced en route to the Melbourne title were modest. Going into the Indian Wells final, his opposition (Federico Delbonis, Filip Krajinovic, Jeremy Chardy, Hyeon Chung and Borna Coric) hardly seemed like a murderer’s row. Their average ranking was 45.
But Juan Martin del Potro is something else. When he beat Federer to claim the 2009 US Open, he became the tallest Grand Slam champ ever. His forehand punishes. Federer said it is, along with the forehand of the now-retired James Blake, the best in the game. And Delpo loves the big stage. He gained Olympic Silver and led his nation to Davis Cup glory. The Argentine was the No. 6 seed here at the BNP Paribas Open, but arguably he’s the second-best player this year. He’s won back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells, where his epic three-set victory gave him his first ever Masters 1000 title.
Going into today’s desert action, Federer said the final would be an arm-wrestling match. But at times it seemed like a chess match or, better yet, a testy sporting war, like no other we’ve seen this year in men’s tennis. Here we saw sweeping forehands that roared, backhand slices and nasty spats, all-out sprints and astonishing resilience from two champions who each faltered when victory was within their grasp. And when the fans weren’t being naughty, they howled in appreciation of an instant classic.
They knew that going in, Roger had just survived a scare at the hands of Borna Coric. Still, his 17-straight match winning streak was intact. He was poised to win his fourth tourney of the year and was favored to claim his sixth Indian Wells crown to break his tie with Djokovic. But shockingly, in the quick fifth game of the opening set, Roger donated three errors and was broken at love.
Delpo would claim the first set 6-4 and soon had two break points in the first game of the second set.
But Roger retooled. He knows how to fight back – be patient, don’t panic. A brilliant stretch forehand caught the line. He sliced with surgical precision. His drop shots frustrated his big foe, and he got two break points. But nothing was going to stop the second set from going to a tie-break, one that proved memorable. The crowd shrieked. The players were testy. Mighty Federer could not convert on four set points. Roger that! Then, at 8-7 in the breaker, Delpo had a championship point, but he hit his money shot, his forehand, into the net. Such a deflating lapse. The door was open for Roger, who after some athletic sprinting hit a forehand that forced Delpo to volley long. A set apiece, the match was even. Tempers weren’t. Delpo smashed his racket on his bag and berated the long-suffering ump, Fergus Murphy. Federer was petulant, too. He displayed his inner McEnroe, but later said he was just trying to pump himself up.
But no worries. Roger stepped into a backhand return to break Delpo. Then, up 5-4, in a flawless rhythm and serving for the title – the Greatest of All Time couldn’t hold serve, as unbelievably, he imploded on three championship points. Sadly, a fabulous match then descended into a dreadful anticlimax. Roger double-faulted twice and made error after error. Then, on his third championship point, an hour after his first opportunity, Delpo watched in disbelief as a Federer forehand flew long. The Argentine had slain the king of tennis 6-4, 6-7(8), 7-6(2). His hands spread wide, his massive frame stretched high to the clear sky. And one thing was clear. The 29-year-old had claimed the second greatest tour title of his career – his first Masters title. Few others in the sport could be more deserving.
He won our hearts with the courage he showed by coming back from four botched wrist surgeries and he’s shared with us a poignant humility that has touched everyone from kids in Andean villages to Pope Francis in the Vatican. So we asked him if he could have imagined this moment after enduring his fourth surgery.
He replied, “Of course, no. I couldn’t imagine this. Everybody knows I was really close to quitting tennis before my third surgery on my left wrist. After that, I made a big effort to come back and play with the slice. Then with my backhand, it wasn’t good [enough] to play at this level. But then during the Olympics, after the Djokovic match, my tennis life changed again. I felt happy again with tennis. I won the Davis Cup and I said, ‘Okay, I don’t have any more pressure to play tennis because I won everything that I wanted except a Masters 1000′ (smiling), but today I did.’”
So where, we asked, did his humility come from? Delpo said, “I learned this from my parents. When I was young, they taught me a lot about life and the effort you have to do to get what you want. And [former Brazilian star] Guga Kuerten was a perfect example. He made a big effort and he’s a great person. Everybody loves Guga and misses him. Everybody loves Roger and Rafa. These guys are making history in our sport.”
And so is a big man with a big heart who just won a big tournament – Juan Martin del Potro.