Eight years ago, in 2009, a callow Juan Martin del Potro short-circuited the possibility of a Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer showdown at the US Open by blasting past Nadal in the semifinals. On Day 10 of the 2017 US Open, before a rollicking packed house in Arthur Ashe Stadium, he did it again, handing Federer his first Grand Slam loss of 2017 in four heart-stopping sets.
The match turned in the third-set tiebreak. Del Potro fought off four set points for the Swiss and converted on his one and only, striking a brilliant cross-court backhand passing shot that forced a backhand volley long from Federer to claim the frame. It was the pivotal moment in a highly anticipated matchup that perhaps did not live up to their five-set 2009 US Open men’s final classic. But man, it came close.
Visibly winded by a virus that sapped his strength and an enervating five-setter two days earlier against Dominic Thiem, del Potro time and time again came up with his best tennis when he needed it most, defeating the five-time champion, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4.
Throughout the match, del Potro did what he does best – pound heavy first serves and club ferocious forehands, a combination that Federer, the game’s greatest tactician, managed to crack just twice.
And on this night, those two breaks of serve were not enough – not enough to topple the gentle giant from Tandil, not enough to deliver the first-ever Fed-Nadal US Open matchup (in what would have been a blockbuster semifinal). Not enough against a very worthy champion who was back on his favorite stage playing at the very top of his championship form.