Juan Martín del Potro running on empty for US Open semi against Rafael Nadal
When Juan Martín del Potro won his only major – here as a 20-year-old eight years ago – he had to beat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer back to back, a feat so awesome the Argentinian was acclaimed as the next star of the sport.
It did not quite work out like that. Wrist injuries, the rise of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and, lately, a slew of young contenders with long hair and Russian roots, have conspired to make life hell for the amiable giant from Tandil. But he is back: now, faced with beating Federer and Nadal on the spin again, he has completed half the task and one more heroic victory against the Spaniard in the US Open semi‑finals on Friday will haul him back to the place of his greatest triumph in the final on Sunday.
Del Potro had “nothing to lose against Federer” in their tense confrontation on Wednesday night, as he said, and, with the freedom to play full tilt after taking medical advice, he played “my best game of the tournament”. Sentiment aside, he has a bigger challenge against Nadal than he faced against either Dominic Thiem – when he came from two sets down to prevail in obvious distress – or Federer, whose back problems might have kicked in during their quarter-final.
However much the Swiss might have wondered about his injury, he played fluently enough but not well enough in the key moments. Del Potro, with his readjusted backhand on song again, had the experience and confidence to pounce in those moments.
As he pointed out: “I made my best backhands of the tournament in the important moments of the match: set point of the third set and then to break his serve in the fourth.”
Federer had earlier correctly identified Del Potro’s backhand as vulnerable and he set about trying to exploit that wing, as he expected the Argentinian to reply with less potent cut and spin, rather than unleashing his full, flat-struck power.
Del Potro found enough big bullets to make Federer pay, however. That relative weak spot will be there in the semi-final and this time Del Potro has the added problem of dealing with Nadal’s left-handed forehand, which is lethal on clay and not bad on hard court.
“He has the chance to find easily my backhand,” he said. “So I don’t know what’s going to be my strategy for that match. But I will try to make winners with my forehand – and don’t run too much, because my legs are tired. Hopefully I can be ready for Rafa. Physically I’m not in perfect condition but, when you play semi-finals of a grand slam, everything can happen.”
Just about everything and anything has happened in this tournament, the most open Open, probably, since the start of the millennium. Rarely can bookmakers, fans, players and commentators have been more non-plussed. The field was already missing four of its top 11 entrants when Andy Murray withdrew at the last minute.
The resulting seedings reshuffle, drawing on rarely used grand slam rules, left Federer and Nadal in the same half of the draw, despite the fact they were the two best players, and thus pitched them towards a first-ever match at these championships in the semi-finals.
Del Potro ruined all that when he “killed Bambi” and, for all that Federer was gracious in defeat, he knew that in one evening he had wasted the effort that had gone before. History was there for the taking and making. Naturally he was aware that the public wanted him to play Nadal, although he said that prospect did not occupy his thoughts before or during his struggle with Del Potro.
But Federer plainly was hurting when reminded of the lost opportunity. “It is a pity but Juan Martín deserves it more.”
Hunger For Federer-Nadal Showdown
The hunger for a Federer-Nadal showdown was intense all through this tournament. The old champions had, after all, won all the 2017 slam titles, Federer prevailing over the Spaniard in Melbourne, skipping Roland Garros to rest his bones, then returning to triumph again at Wimbledon. Nadal, meanwhile, rolled on to la décima, his 10th French Open title capping a glorious clay swing.
Nadal, however, has slipped a little since Paris. And the unknown component in the semi-final is how much energy he can bring to the match after another lights-out campaign here. The odds, such as they can be relied on any more, are that he will bring Del Potro’s rousing run to a halt, maybe in four sets.
The tournament needs another finalist, of course, but the noise created on the more gilded side of the draw has drowned out the efforts of those who have been serially derided as third-rate contenders: Sam Querrey, Kevin Anderson, Pablo Carreño Busta and Diego Schwartzman. Those are names that might light up an ATP 500 tournament.
But credit to Anderson and Carreño Busta, who have done all that has been asked of them and more. The Spaniard, seeded 12, has not dropped a set in five matches and allowed Schwartzman only 10 games in their quarter-final. Anderson, who put Murray out here in four sets in the fourth round last year, is invariably under-regarded in majors, dismissed as a serving behemoth, but he brought more than that to his four-set win over Querrey, crucially in the deciding tie-break. He showed a lot of control under pressure when it mattered.
Carreño Busta will start favourite, as his game has a few more wrinkles, but the South African sounds up for it. “It’s a fantastic feeling,” he said of his win over Querrey, “but I’m going to have another opportunity to go one step further.”
He said of his opponent [whom he beat in straight sets in Montreal]: “He’s had an amazing year, really consistent results. At the French, getting through to the quarters and now through to the semis here.”
None of which will count a whit when he is lining up one of those huge forehand winners. At his 34th attempt Anderson is the first South African grand slam semi-finalist since Wayne Ferreira in Melbourne in 2003. Cliff Drysdale in 1965 was the last of his compatriots to reach a decider at these championships.
That is a lot of history. This tournament has been dripping in it. There is surely more to come.