Juan Martin del Potro took a long time to fall asleep prior to Monday’s U.S. Open final. He had just waxed six-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 — playing the best match of his life in the semifinals.
Only one player remained — Roger Federer, against whom del Potro was 0-6 coming into the match and who had destroyed him in the 2009 Australian Open quarterfinals and beat him in five sets in the French Open semis.
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“Last night was terrible,” the 20-year-old Argentine said. “I was playing the best player ever in such a big stadium and in a Grand Slam final and it weighed heavily on me. Finally I got to sleep, and then I had some dreams, but I’m not sure what they were about.”
Maybe they detailed a heroic and gutsy effort because that’s what del Potro displayed in stunning the Swiss 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 in the final, becoming the first man other than Nadal to beat Federer in a Slam final in 20 occasions.
Nadal had defeated Federer five times in major finals, but his style was completely different than the one that del Potro employed.
The Spaniard grinds Federer down and runs down one blast after another until he completely frustrates the world’s most artistic shotmaker.
But not “DelPo” — as he’s called — a power player who didn’t fear Federer’s big forehand and was willing to attempt — and score with — big shots.
Had it not been for a nervous first set, and a shaky end to the third when he double-faulted twice at 4-5 to hand Federer the set, he might have gotten off the court in 2 1/2 hours. Del Potro clearly outplayed the guy who had won five straight U.S. Open titles and who had never been taken to a fifth set by the likes of former No. 1s Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi in New York.
“My dream done. It’s over,” said del Potro, who became the first Argentine male to win the title since Guillermo Vilas in 1977. “I will go home with a trophy, and it’s my best sensation ever in my life.
“I didn’t have the experiences in these types of matches. But I knew I had to keep fighting because it was Grand Slam final and the crowd was supporting me so much that they deserved it. They lifted me and finally I was able to turn it around mentally. It was an amazing match, amazing people. Everything is perfect.”
The match took four hours and six minutes, the longest U.S. Open final since Agassi beat Todd Martin in 1999. Del Potro has been on the verge of big things for the past year and a half, but seemed to be lacking in conditioning and mental toughness.
This time he brilliantly rode through the ups and downs of a major.
His near upset of Federer in Paris gave him a huge boost of confidence that he could pound his way to victory. He served huge when he needed to and spotted his first serve intelligently when he thought he needed to work himself into points. He became aware of how much the crowd was pulling for him and played to Argentines in attendance who serenaded him with cries of “Ole, Ole, DelPo.”
During the sixth game of the fourth set, after arguably the fastest 6-foot-6 tennis player ever chased down a Federer blast near the wall and curled it around the post for a forehand winner, he high-fived the crowd.
He faced down Federer in the second-set tiebreaker with an inside-out forehand winner to take the set. Then he survived a major hiccup in the third set.
“When I lost the third set … I start to think bad things,” del Potro said. “It was so difficult to keep trying to keep fighting. But one more time the crowd and the fans helped me a lot to fight until the last point.”
Down 4-5 at deuce and just two points from defeat in the fourth set, Del Potro smoked an ace and a forehand down the line for a winner. He then took the tiebreaker when Federer committed two odd forehand errors.
In the fifth, he broke Federer early with a wicked forehand crosscourt passing shot to go up 2-0, and at his third match point at 5-2, hit another heavy forehand that a defensive Federer couldn’t handle.
Amazingly, he ended the contest with 37 forehand winners to just 20 from Federer, who has dominated with his forehand for years.
Del Potro dropped onto his back and stared at the darkened sky above and stayed there for a good 10 seconds.
“It’s always an amazing effort coming through and winning your first in your first final,” Federer said. “Got to give him all the credit because it’s not an easy thing to do, especially coming out against someone like me with so much experience. I think it’s not easy to have a steel racket.
“Towards the end, of course, up 5-2 in the fifth. That was easy. But he had to live through some really tough moments earlier on in both breakers throughout those sets to come back. So his effort was fantastic.”
Federer wasn’t pleased that he failed to step on del Potro in the second set and gain a comfortable two-sets-to-love lead, nor was he pleased with the chair umpire, whom he thought gave del Potro too much time to challenge a call, and then dropped some swear words to show his displeasure.
Federer wasn’t happy about some fans who failed to get into their seats quickly enough, or about how many good balls were being used in a particular set. It was an altogether irritable day for the new dad, but he’s still pleased with his season.
“I’ve had an amazing summer and a great run,” he said. “I’m not too disappointed just because I thought I played another wonderful tournament. Had chances today to win, but couldn’t take them. It was unfortunate. I thought he hung in there and gave himself chances, and in the end was the better man.”
That may not be the case the next time they meet as Federer has proved adept at making adjustments. But the 28-year-old Federer cannot expect to keep dominating the game forever, especially when there are guys eight years younger than him like del Potro who can overpower him.
The soft-spoken del Potro — the first man to beat both Nadal and Federer in the same major — has truly entered the conversation of consistently being in Grand Slam contention with Nadal, Federer, Roddick, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
“I have new opportunities in the other Grand Slams to win, because if I did here, if I beat Nadal, Federer and many good players, maybe I can do one more time,” del Potro said.