Monday, September 14, 2009

Tall Order: Del Potro Denies Federer His Sweet 16; Wins First Slam

If you like biting your nails, this was the Grand-Slam final for you. If you have a heart condition, maybe not.

Juan Martin Del Potro may have come into this U.S. Open men's final like a lamb, but he went out like a lion, scoring a hard-fought and tension-laden victory over living legend Roger Federer, 3-6, 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-2.

Del Potro, who at 6’6” is the tallest player to ever secure a Grand-Slam title, becomes the 2nd man to defeat Roger Federer in a Grand-Slam final, and the first to ever defeat him at the U.S. Open final.

After looking like a deer in the headlights for the better part of the first two sets, the 20-year-old Del Potro came to life, snatching his first service break of the match just as Federer looked poised to put his all-too-familiar vice grip on the match.

“Yes, the beginning of the match, I was so nervous, I can’t sleep last night. I didn’t take a breakfast today,” said Del Potro. “That’s part of the final, you know.”

Serving for the set at 5-4, 30-0, Federer, the holder of five consecutive U.S. Open titles, was two points from a seemingly invincible 2-set lead.

But Del Potro magically found a window that was big enough to crawl through.

The No. 6 seed, who will turn 21 later this month, displaying a rare sense of timing that only the true champions ever seem to possess, reeled off four consecutive points, finishing off the game by delivering two improbably clutch passing shots that were perfectly placed along the sideline.

The first was ruled out, but when Del Potro challenged the call, the replay overturned the point. Federer, who has long been critical of the Hawk-Eye challenge system, was miffed by the call, especially since it had led to a break point.

On the ensuing break point, Del Potro’s third of the match, the lanky Argentine intercepted a spinning Federer volley with a running topspin forehand that landed just inside the line for the break, and a 5-5 tie.

“I got off to a pretty good start,” said Federer. “I had things under control as well in the second set. I think that one cost me the match eventually. But I had many chances before that to make the difference.

“So it was tough luck today, but I thought Juan Martin played great. I thought he hung in there and gave himself chances, and in the end was the better man.”

Both players held serve into the tie-break, but as Federer shanked a forehand at 3-3, Del Potro had the mini-break that would give him an advantage he would never relinquish. Moments later, he closed out the set with a beautiful inside-out forehand and a fist pump to boot — suddenly a match that was two points away from being a lost cause was up for grabs.

In the third set, Del Potro looked energized. Hitting unfathomable forehands that seemed shot out of a cannon rather than struck by a racquet, the Argentine seemed to be taking the momentum from the Swiss maestro, slowly but surely.

“Good feeling with my forehand I think was the key of the match,” Del Potro would later state, in a post-match press conference.

It was the understatement of the day.

Del Potro was in a classic zone, and it was awe inspiring to see the almost unconscious ease with which his prodigious blasts were struck. And the blistering-fast forehand seemed to get better as the match progressed. The long-limbed Argentine regularly scorched winners as fast as 110 M.P.H. and he was launching his devastating cross-court forehand with deadly accuracy, even in the tensest of moments.

The New York crowds were impressed with the gutsy go-for-broke style that Del Potro employed, and Federer was impressed as well. “He definitely strikes it with great pace and good margin, too. Sometimes he hits crazy ones, too, but that’s what happens when you go for it a lot…I don’t know if it’s the best in the world right now. I don’t think so, but it doesn’t matter. He won the match, right?”

When Del Potro grabbed a service break in the seventh game of the 3rd set, it seemed like he was on the road to higher ground. But Federer quickly answered with a break of his own to level the set at four. They were neck-and-neck again.

After Federer hit a service winner to deny Del Potro another break point opportunity then took a 5-4 lead, another huge momentum shift took place.

Del Potro, obviously feeling the pressure as he was serving to stay alive in the set, awkwardly served two ill-timed double faults to gift Federer the set and a 2-1 lead.

Though it did seem to deflate Del Potro for a period, the resilient kid resisted drowning in disappointment and managed to summon key shots at crucial junctures and remain in the match.

“When I lost the third set, I started to think bad things,” said Del Potro. “It was so difficult to keep trying to keep fighting, but one more time the crowd and the fans helped me to fight…”

Still, it felt like he was hanging by a thread; against a player whom he had never beaten, Del Potro was trying to win a title that he had never won.

Pressure mounted on the young Argentine in the early games of the fourth set - but when he found himself facing two break points in the second game, and another in the fourth game, he was up to the task. A sudden shift in serving strategy seemed to relax Del Potro, and as he slowed his serve down to the low 100 M.P.H. range he achieved better results.

Federer was the first to yield in the fourth set. But again, he immediately broke back to level the set, and a fourth set tie-breaker ensued, with the electrified crowd lustily encouraging both players and doing its best to heighten the ambiance.

Remarkably, Federer served 11 double faults for the match, including one on the first point of the 4th set tie-break from which he was never able to recover.

A piercing down-the-line backhand forced Federer to miss a running forehand wide for 4-2, and after a strange point, in which Federer thought he heard an “out” call—which really came from the crowd—Del Potro took a 5-2 lead when Federer sailed a backhand long.

Moments later, Del Potro sealed the set with two straight points on his serve, and the boisterous crowd urged the players on as they prepared for the home stretch.

It was the second unsuccessful tie-break of the night for Federer, who was 4-0 in U.S. Open final tie-breaks, and 18-3 in Grand-Slam final tie-breaks coming into the match.

The fifth set would decide the winner at the U.S. Open final, for the first time since Agassi and Todd Martin went the distance on Arthur Ashe in 1999.

After Del Potro scored a break early in the 5th set, it stood to reason that it would soon be Federer’s turn to break back. But Del Potro kept him at bay. He managed one unsuccessful break point opportunity in the next game, but as the set drew on, Federer’s chances were fewer.

The bearded Argentine in the yellow bandanna and sleeveless shirt held to love to lead 5-2, and the chants of his name echoed down from the nosebleed sections of Arthur Ashe Stadium as the players headed for their chairs.

When Federer took the balls to serve to stay in the match, his face wore a strange look of acceptance, as if he was resigned to his fate — apparently even the greatest of all time can meet his match on certain occasions.

Still, Federer withstood 2 Championship points with brilliant shot-making to retake the advantage in the game. Destinies still hung in the balance, with just one break separating the two, but the hungry Argentine would not relent.

Three points later (one of them a critical Federer double fault at deuce) it was over. Del Potro was lying flat on his back just beyond the service line. He looked like he was floating on an ocean of painted-blue cement, his intensity slowly morphing into exultation, his long limbs outstretched for a moment, then pulled close to his face to hide his tears of joy from the world.

He had beaten the odds and etched his name in the history books aside his heroes: Sampras, Safin, and the colossal presence on the other side of the net who was waiting to shake his hand.

“It’s difficult to explain this moment,” Del Potro later said. “ You know, since I was young I dream of this. It was an amazing match, amazing people, everything is perfect.”

“When I lay down on the floor, many things come to my mind. First my family and my friends and everything. I don’t know how I can explain, because it’s my dream. My dream is done... It’s over. I will go home with a trophy, and it’s my best sensation ever in my life.”