An electric feeling was in the air. The fever was building, rising, racing towards a crescendo. Rafael Nadal had crushed Andrey Rublev in their quarterfinal match. The Russian had been overwhelmed by everything – the stadium, the moment, and Rafa. Half of tennis’s greatest rivalry had made it to the semifinals. All that was left was for the other half – Roger Federer – to join him there and voila! The dream would finally become reality.
Growing in tandem with that feverish anticipation, was raw fear. A clash between tennis’s two greatest titans in the game’s biggest stadium has always been thwarted by a few dangerous players in the past. There was Andy Murray in 2008, Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009, and Novak Djokovic in 2010 and 2011. They are the most notable ones. The U.S Open, it appeared, had been cursed with the fate of never hosting this rivalry and forever relegated to stew in Jealousy as the other slams were treated to tennis at its finest. Rafael Nadal was through, but Roger Federer was up against the first man to beat him and Rafa at the same slam. Juan Martin Del Potro was back.
That last sentence does not refer to the Argentine’s return date from injury and surgery. It refers to Del Potro’s juggernaut game. A game built around one of the most titanic forehands you will ever have the privilege of witnessing. Del Potro had rediscovered himself in the last three sets of play against Dominic Thiem. Faced with defeat, and toying with the prospect of retiring in the fourth round, the Argentine had decided not to lose. We now know he carried that resolve with him to the quarterfinals. Before the matches begun, I had focused on Roger Federer’s need to keep his intensity level high, play smart court positioning tennis and serve very well, if he hoped to win against an inspired Del Potro. As it turns out, Federer could not do any of these things very well. Whatever troubles he’d been fighting throughout the tournament, had finally caught up with him.
Federer looked a bit lost on the court and unsure of what play to use against Del Potro. The decisiveness, and clarity of mind that saw him win in Australia and sweep the field in London, was nowhere to be found. Worst of all, he allowed Juan Martin Del Potro’s forehand into the match. Once the Argentine’s ballistic missiles started firing, the outcome of this one was never in doubt. Federer was a sitting duck out there and Del Potro virtually used him for target practice. It is rare to see Federer rattled and out of sorts. Last night he was. He was reaching for something he just didn’t have the strength to grasp. It was like watching a race car trying to transition to a higher gear but failing to and thus remaining stuck at a certain speed, while a powerful truck roared past.
This loss probably hurts more because Federer had his chances, particularly in the third set. He was uncharacteristically careless with them and Del Potro made him pay. The U.S Open is becoming for Federer, a bit like the Australian Open is for Rafael Nadal. He just can’t win it again, for some reason or the other. I wouldn’t dare say he’ll never win it again. You’ll never know with Federer but considering the year he’s had, this was a missed opportunity.
As for Juan Martin Del Potro, he has once again foiled FEDAL #1 at in New York. He moves on to face Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. The Spaniard must be aware of the threat. Del Potro has caused him nightmares in the past and he knows how to defeat him. With the way he’s playing, he could very well strike again on Friday.