By now you may know that Juan Martin del Potro beat Roger Federer last night, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(8), 6-4.
Lead off with the inspiring half of the story: Delpo could be about to reprise the 2009 U.S. Open, where he famously hit through both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to snag his only major title. (Aside: it’s a shame Nike even put sleeves on his outfit this year.) That del Potro, once the No. 4 player in the world, could now take aim at the U.S. Open title after three devastating wrist surgeries that left him below No. 1,000 in the world, makes him one of the realest, no-schmaltz, tear-jerking comeback tales the sport has seen. Look at the date on the below tweet, then consider that he’d go onto defeat Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on his way to an Olympics silver medal, make a U.S. Open quarterfinal, win his first title in two years, win a decisive Davis Cup match for Argentina, and, after a flat 2017 season, still return to the U.S. Open semifinal:
So heartening is his arc that you actually heard healthy cheering—in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Mecca for the basic Federer stan in slacks and a logo hat—when Roger Federer lost his serve, and lost entire sets. Which brings us to the less encouraging part of last night: after an outrageous 2017, Federer may be physically slowing down. The first signs of back issues in Montreal (very visibly), and then in his withdrawal from Cincinnati, and then through his painful first two rounds here in New York. He said last night that he entered the tournament with hopes that his back would actually improve as the tournament progressed, and it did: vintage silky stuff as he rolled through Feliciano Lopez and Philipp Kohlschreiber in six straight sets. But it did catch up to him last night. This is how he diagnosed his various woes in his frank presser:
So it was one of those matches where if I ran into a good guy, I was going to lose, I felt. I don’t want to say I was in negative mindset, but I knew going in that I’m not in a safe place. Might have depended too much on my opponent, and I don’t like that feeling. I had it, you know, throughout the tournament, and I just felt that way every single match I went into.
I didn’t have that feeling at Wimbledon or at the Australian Open, and that’s why rightfully so I’m out of this tournament, because I wasn’t good enough, in my mind, in my body, and in my game to overcome these three pillars.
If you’re missing all three, it’s going to be tough. I’m okay with it, and I tried until the very end. And smashing certain stuff in the net that I normally wouldn’t, smashing forehand volleys into the back fence, I mean, that stuff sucked. You know, honestly, it was terrible.
While Delpo played a solid match, looking nearly untouchable off his first serve, it wasn’t the out-and-out rheumy genius seen against Dominic Thiem after going down two sets. The version of Delpo that took the court last night was a beatable foe, but Federer was not going to beat him held back by obstacles both physical and tactical.
He couldn’t count on his movement, as seen in his helpless return games in the final set (he won just three points), or anytime he tried to tango with Delpo in fast-paced net exchanges. Rarely will you see Federer let that first ball simply whizz by him without a fight—remember this?—or blow the footwork on that second backpedaling sequence, on set point no less:
Somewhat mystifyingly, Federer played heavily to del Potro’s forehand—one of the most vicious tennis has ever seen—instead of beating up on his hobbled backhand. Most strange is that he did this while rushing the net, as if urging his opponent to spank one right past him. Not that it was a bad idea for Federer to come forward; after all, that’s the trademark of his attacking style, especially in his hyper-aggressive late career, and it’s wise to avoid drawn-out baseline exchanges with Delpo when his forehand is clicking. But even Federer—who cleans up most messes at the net with pre-cog anticipatory skills—can’t just send a tepid approach shot to the Delpo forehand and pray for good results.
Federer won 64 percent of his points at the net, a dip below the 73 percent he’d averaged through the first four rounds. Del Potro had 11 passing shots on the night, and to his complete credit, some of them were totally beyond Federer’s control:
And then there were the mistakes that had nothing to do with tactics and just seemed totally outside the usual range of what seems possible for Roger—the routine suddenly made to look difficult. If, as famously argued, there are Federer Moments, these were the un-Federer Moments. These were the things that “sucked.” A blown overhead, ducking under but also whiffing at a passing shot, a volley mishit some 10 feet out at 30-30 in the last game of the match:
Federer said last night that he still plans to play a full schedule for the rest of the season, with some exhibition matches at the Laver Cup and then stops in Shanghai, Paris, and London. He’ll want to take some time to get his back in order if he is to make a run at year-end No. 1, which, to take the broader view, is probably a lot more than he bargained for when he entered the Australian Open this year.