Three games in two sets; that was all that an ailing Juan Martin del Potro was able to muster at the start of his fourth-round match against sixth-seeded Dominic Thiem. In obvious distress, hit hard by a virus, the 24th-seeded Argentine staggered through the start of the match and often appeared to be out on his feet through those first two sets (which took just over an hour to play). It was painful to watch del Potro’s obvious suffering and few – if any – figured he would even be able to finish. Indeed, if he’d had a corner man, the towel would very likely have been airborne.
But the individual nature of tennis tends to reward individual toughness, and after those first two sets, the remainder of the match was a telling testament to the toughness of the 2009 US Open champ. Somehow, some way, del Potro was able to raise his game above his illness, and once he found his feet, he turned his second wind into a gale.
The Argentine broke Thiem early in the third, then took the set easily, 6-1, rediscovering his big serve and penetrating forehand. Thiem still had the upper hand, however, and used an early break in the fourth to race out to a 5-2 fourth-set lead. But buoyed by the ever-expanding Grandstand crowd, that now packed the place elbow-to-elbow, del Potro rallied back to 4-5, then saved two match points with two loud aces. The set went to a tiebreak, in which del Potro lost just one point to pull the match even.
By the start of the fifth set, the grounds were abuzz with the news of the happenings in Grandstand, as fans flocked toward the stadium hoping to somehow squeeze in to witness what was clearly fast becoming the match of the tournament. The chants of “Vamos! Vamos!” and “Olé Olé Olé Olé! Delpo… Delpo!” reverberated inside, and del Potro, who earlier had stood on shaky ground, was now standing tall amid this earthquake of excitement.
In the deciding set, del Potro broke Thiem to go up 5-4, and when the Austrian double faulted on the second match point against him, del Potro claimed the impossible 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4 victory. It was an instant classic that took 3 hours, 35 minutes and an untold amount of sheer will to complete.
“I was thinking to retire in the middle of the second set because I couldn't breathe, I couldn't move well,” said del Potro after the win. “But then when we start the third set, I broke his serve very quick, and then I won the set in 20 minutes. Then the history change a lot. I started to see the crowd. I took all the energy from the fans. I was ready to win the match in that moment, and in the end, I play one of the epic matches of my career here in the US Open, which is my favorite tournament.”
Epic indeed, especially considering that it began with just three games in two sets.