For the last three years, we’ve been waiting for someone to nudge his way into the very top tier of players, a guy who could share the stage with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Two years ago, it appeared it was going to be Novak Djokovic. At the Open in 2007, Djokovic had his chances, but went away in three sets against Federer. Even though he eventually won in Australia in 2008, he hasn’t been to a Grand Slam final since. Last year, Andy Murray was going to the next big thing, but he, too, faded in three sets to Federer in the final, and he, too, hasn’t been back to a Grand Slam final since.
Enter Juan Martin del Potro. In a stunning, four-hour-and-six-minute match, del Potro shocked the New York crowd and the tennis world and defeated Federer in five sets, winning the last set in especially remarkable fashion, 6-2. It was the first time that Roger Federer has ever lost a Grand Slam final to a man not named Nadal.
The result is particularly shocking because, ninety minutes into the match, it looked like another supposed heir apparent was going to wilt away under the pressure. With del Potro looking weak and unfocused, Federer easily won the first set and looked like he was cruising towards the second. Federer wasn’t playing perfect tennis. Far from it. (His first serve percentage, for one thing, was under 45 percent in both of the first two sets.) But del Potro was plainly nervous and unable to capitalize on his opponent’s weaknesses, and Federer advanced to a 5-3 lead in the second set.
That was when we were introduced to the del Potro forehand. Reintroduced, rather; this was the shot that overwhelmed Nadal yesterday. It’s hit at more than 100 mph, and its snapping sound reverberates perfectly up to the highest seat at Ashe. Thanks to that forehand, with Federer serving for the second set, del Potro, unbelievably, broke him and then took the set in a tiebreaker.
But it’s gut-check time, right? Federer wouldn’t roll over. He won the third set comfortably, 6-4. After all, this is what champions do, and it looked like we were going to watch Federer win yet again, even if it was a competitive test. Just another great story for the Federer annals. But then, in the fourth set, with Federer up 5-4, and two points away from the championship, del Potro didn’t get nervous, held his serve, and, giving off a Marat Safin vibe from his 2000 U.S. Open men’s final upset of Pete Sampras, demolished Federer in the tiebreaker. He got the early break in the fifth and then absolutely bombarded a glum and confused Federer the rest of the way.
Del Potro’s forehand and serve were masterful by the end, but his ability to win on the biggest, most pressure-filled points was even more impressive. In the match, Federer had 22 chances to break del Potro’s serve, and he was denied 17 of those times. Djokovic let the big moments catch up to him. Same with Andy Murray. Somehow, the 20-year-old Argentine, who we’ve been hearing about for a year or two as the next breakout star, finally broke out.
He had to do it by beating Nadal in the semis and then Federer in the finals. There’s no clearer test.
Now, our next point can easily be cast as a knee-jerk reaction, but we saw tonight a glimpse–small but real–of the twilight of Federer’s remarkable dominance over the game. All credit to del Potro in this match, but Federer, from start to finish, played medicore tennis at best, and poor at worst. His first serve percentage was 50 percent. He missed 17 break point chances. He hit into 11 double faults. He made 56 errors (in the fifth set, on the biggest stage in tennis–the time and place Federer has always shone brightest–he hit into 15 unforced errors versus 4 winners).
If Federer won the Open, it would be called a career year–three Grand Slams on three different surfaces. But really, on reflection, we’re beginning to watch Federer get tested in a way we never have before. He lost the Australian Open after being torched by Nadal in the final set. In the French Open he never had to face Nadal, and he had to play two five-set matches that he barely eked out (one to Tommy Haas, and one to, you guessed it, Juan Martin del Potro). At Wimbledon, it took him 30 games in the fifth set to beat Andy Roddick, a guy who has never otherwise come even close to him in a Grand Slam match. But tonight, quite frankly, Federer laid an egg. Del Potro was playing admirably gutsy tennis, but he didn’t have the best day of his life, either (he had more errors than winners in this match, and we would go as far to argue that he actually played better in his five-set loss to Federer at the French).
Either way, you can’t help but feel there’s a changing of the guard in tennis–or, at least, a more crowded stage at the top. Juan Martin del Potro did something that Andy Murray hasn’t done and now we hope he capitalizes on it in a way that Novak Djokovic, thus far, has not