WHAT HAPPENED: Amidst resounding chants of “OLE, OLE, OLE OLE, DELPO, DELPO!”, Juan Martin del Potro electrified a capacity Grandstand crowd on Labor Day at the US Open, saving two match points and overcoming the effects of a virus to score an improbable 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4 comeback victory over No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem.
The 24th-seeded Argentine – US Open champion in 2009 – moves into the quarterfinals for the second year in a row, and the fifth time in nine years.
“I don’t know what can I say after such a big battle,” del Potro told the crowd. “I was sick the last two days and I came here trying to play the best I can. I was trying to feel better every game and I think I fought like this because of you guys. I’m so happy to go through playing this great match.”
When these two players last met, in the very same round at this very same tournament last year, Thiem was unable to summon his best tennis. The Austrian retired from that match in the second set with a knee injury trailing 6-3, 3-2. This time around it was del Potro who would deal with his own health woes, though he wisely stuck around to see the match through to the end.
Thiem, a day removed from his 24th birthday, was in control early, sprinting out to a 3-0 first-set advantage. Fans sensed that something was off, but it wasn’t until the changeover, with the late afternoon shadows beginning to stretch across the court, that their fears were confirmed. It was then that del Potro called for the chair umpire, clearly suffering physically. The 28-year-old retook the court and finally held for 1-5, but couldn’t turn the set around. He hadn’t dropped a set through the first three rounds of the tournament.
Del Potro would fall behind 0-4 in the second set before he finally got on the scoreboard, but after just one-hour, 13 minutes of action, he trailed two sets to love. He didn’t hit a single winner though the first 11 games of the match.
To the delight of the fans, many of whom sported the sky-blue and white colors of La Albiceleste, Argentina’s national soccer team, del Potro showed some life and rediscovered his penetrating forehand in the third set. With Thiem serving at 0-1, 15-40, he forced the Austrian into a forehand error for the break and a 2-0 advantage, subsequently taking a seat courtside and turning to shake broadcaster and former fellow pro Mardy Fish’s hand. Said Fish of the feel-good moment, “And you wonder why everyone loves this guy.”
Five games later, del Potro had pulled to within a set of Thiem.
Thiem would come up with some big shots in the fourth. A picture-perfect backhand volley and a sweeping down-the-line backhand gave him a break and a 5-2 lead. But del Potro still had some life. He brought the set back on serve with a break of his own for 4-5. Facing a pair of match points trailing 5-6, 15-40, del Potro dug deep and came up with back-to-back aces to fight off both, sending the contest into a fourth-set tiebreak. Surging ahead 6-1 in the breaker, he would force a fifth and final set with a massive forehand pass, bringing the partisan crowd to its collective feet.
Despite some slick shotmaking in the fifth set, Thiem soon found himself facing a pair of match points himself. Down 4-5, 30-40, he would save one, but couldn’t save a second. After such a valiant battle, he double-faulted the match away at the three-hour, 34-minute mark, Del Porto having scored one of the most thrilling comebacks in US Open history.
One of the ATP Tour’s most promising stars since turning pro a half-dozen years ago, Thiem came into 2017 with a goal of trying to play more consistent tennis at the majors. While he has twice reached the Roland Garros semifinals, he has never ventured beyond the fourth round at any of the other three Grand Slams. Falling short of the quarterfinals again in Flushing Meadows, he’ll have to wait to reach that goal until next year.
WHAT IT MEANS: Del Potro’s emotional return to the Top 30 after no fewer than four wrist surgeries between 2010 and 2015 seems more miraculous with each and every win. Next up will be a rematch with Roger Federer, the very man he defeated in another five-setter for the ages in the ’09 US Open final.
MATCH POINT: Considering the physical toll of del Potro’s five-set comeback, will he have anything left in the tank for his quarterfinal showdown with the five-time US Open champ?