Federer, del Potro set for title-match showdown

The storm passed and left us with a day for laughter and tears at the U.S. Open; a day of remembrance and sadness mixed with some thunderously good tennis. And a fairy tale. Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro produced the great tennis and Kim Clijsters, in just her third tournament back after marriage and motherhood, lived the fairy tale.

Clijsters won the U.S. Open for the second time by beating Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark 7-5, 6-3 in a match that offered a crowd of 23,000 a two-course feast — the ability to savor the remarkable sight of a great player slipping back so easily to life at the top and a 19-year-old newcomer looking as if she is destined for far greater things in the game than just one Grand Slam final.

Earlier, the question of whether Rafael Nadal was fit enough to battle his way into a U.S. Open final for the first time was quickly answered. Rifling balls back off both wings, that upwardly mobile Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro, announced himself as a major player by beating the former world No. 1 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.

To be fair to Nadal, the match wasn’t quite as one-sided as the score suggests, and it is impossible to really know just how much the Spaniard was affected by the stomach muscle issue that has affected him throughout the championships.

Nadal did not try to hide from the injury afterwards but was desperate not to appear that he was offering it as an excuse.

“He played much better than me and I congratulate him,” Nadal said at the start of his press conference. And when asked almost immediately about the injury, he insisted, “I’m going to repeat: He played much better than me and for that reason he beat me. Later, it sounds like an excuse, no?”

Rafa doesn’t do excuses, but he doesn’t lie either and admitted, “After Montreal I was doing a test, I went to do an MRI and I had a strained muscle and I think into these two weeks the strain is converted into a little bit of a rupture.”

Nadal went on to say that it was tough to play his matches like that — no kidding — but that he felt that “I did a good result. Very positive result for me after coming back. It’s one of the most important tournaments of the year, so I had to try, no?”

That’s one thing you can count on with Rafa Nadal. He will always try.

Given the circumstances, it was amazing he got back as many balls as he did because del Potro was awesome. His serve has improved; his ground strokes have gained even more power and his ability to use his long arms to hit deep and strong when at full stretch is an asset that will strike fear into the hearts of opponents for many years hence. He is just 20 and there is so much more to come.

Federer is 27, but you could say the same for him. Just as we thought, the burden of needing to win the French Open and pass Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles has freed him from having to prove anything to anybody and, coupled with the joy of fatherhood, has turned him into an even more amazing and outrageous performer.

Novak Djokovic, who had beaten him in Miami and Rome this year, played a really good match and lost 7-6, 7-5, 7-5. The Serb even led 4-2 in the first set before Federer just flicked a switch and went up a gear. Everything suddenly became faster — faster movement, faster swing through the ball, faster detonation to those far corners of the court that Djokovic could not reach.

It was not all perfect. A wind got up and there were a few shanked balls here and there, but some of the rallies were breathtaking. After many of them, Djokovic was left with nothing to do but smile.

The best came at the very end when Novak sent up a lob and Federer, obviously feeling anything was possible, chased back and hit the “watch-out-it-might-hurt” shot between his legs. I have seen it come off before but not like this. Djokovic was mid-court and the ball whizzed past him for the most perfect winner. It took Federer to match point and a trademark off-forehand winner completed the job.

Asked whether the through-the-legs winner was the shot of his life, Federer replied, “Well, I would think so. You know it was the semifinal of a Grand Slam after all. So to come up with that, to get to match point against Djokovic here in the semis is amazing, so I think that is probably why.”

There will probably be less time for fun and games against del Potro in the second consecutive men’s singles final at the U.S. Open to be played on the third Monday.

Federer destroyed the Argentine when they met at the Australian Open but trailed by two sets to one when they played at Roland Garros in June. No one needed to point out the improvement in del Potro’s game to the Swiss. He knows just how tough it is going to be to win that sixth straight U.S. Open crown.

But, right now, he seems capable of anything.

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