September 7, 2017
Juan Martin del Potro produced one of his greatest displays to beat Roger Federer 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (10-8), 6-4 and set up a dream semi-final against Rafael Nadal.
No wonder he stared high into the New York night sky, taking in the thousands of ecstatic Argentinians in the upper tiers, and stretched out his arms in dramatic celebration.
The tennis world may have wanted Federer to win through to face Nadal again instead. But with typical honesty, Fed said later that he wouldn’t have been able to make a decent match of it this time around.
Such was Roger’s feeling of insecurity after coming up short against a superb opponent, that he simply didn’t feel worthy. He blew four set points in the third-set tie-break and sent easy smashes awry, either down into the net, wild and wide, or back into Del Potro’s path at key moments.
Double faults, limp volleys and forehands…this was not the incredible Federer who has blasted every opponent off the court in a 2017 we will never forget. This wasn’t the real Roger.
And although his preparation for the tournament was limited due to a back injury, you couldn’t help but feel surprise and even a little discomfort at Federer’s mental state, both during the match and afterwards.
Even earlier in the tournament, we had suggested that it is time for Roger to take another break. That recommendation would appear to be even more relevant and appropriate now. Anyone who loves Federer wants to see him fizzing again as soon as possible. A good rest will help chase away the self-doubt.
Just listen to the greatest sportsman of all time and what he said after his defeat. ‘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 that I was in a negative mindset, but I knew going in that I’m not in a safe place. It might have depended too much on my opponent – and I don’t like that feeling.
‘I had it throughout the tournament, and I felt that way every single match I went into. I wasn’t good enough in my mind, in my body and in my game to overcome those three pillars. I feel I have no place in the semi and Juan Martin will have a better chance to beat Rafa, to be honest.’
Del Potro will even have some energy left in the tank, after a match that looked to be heading for five sets ended with Federer’s rare submission, as though he knew that further desperate resistance was futile.
And we must give every possible compliment to Juan Martin, the man who nearly had to quit tennis two years ago due to a succession of wrist injuries, but is very definitely firing on all cylinders now. A mere flick of the wrist is a lethal weapon in the Argentine’s armoury these days.
But Del Potro’s anticipation was key. He seemed to know where Federer was about to put the ball almost every time. Even on points that looked a foregone conclusion, the South American suddenly popped up in the right place to find a winner.
His serve was sometimes unplayable, such as the time he hit 130mph on the speedometer. There was control and strength of mind in adversity. Even when he seemed to call for the doctor, he had recovered a sense of well-being and determination quickly enough to wave the medic away by the time the latter had arrived at court-side.
Federer crumbled with a double fault and a dreadful volley to lose the first set. But he looked in familiar command as Del Potro slumped in the second. Then came Roger’ own psychological crisis, from which he never fully seemed to recover, even though he forced a tie-break and marched to the brink of victory in that pivotal mini-battle four times.
‘I was lucky,’ said Delpo later. But he made his own luck, just as Federer was in many respects the architect of his own downfall.
Juan Martin deserved his moments of celebration, as 5000 supporters from Argentina went crazy and the other 18,000 reflected on a curious and absorbing contest.
Del Potro said: ‘I think I played my best match of the tournament. I played everything well. The fans make me feel happy every time I play here. I hope they will be cheering for me again against Rafa.’
So will retirement be going through Federer’s mind? It shouldn’t. Of course, if he gets the feeling that victory depends on his opponent falling short, if that becomes a regular fear, then he will know it is time to call it a day.
But as Federer pointed out, he didn’t feel like that in Australia and he didn’t feel like that at Wimbledon. So there is no need to think about quitting just yet.
Roger will surely want one last go at winning Wimbledon, because he loves the English Slam so much. Expect Federer to find the answers, come back strong once more, and star at Wimbledon 2018.