Del Potro spoils the Federer-Nadal party

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NEW YORK – There was a meeting of the board of directors of Tennis Gods Inc. Wednesday evening.

It was a heavenly dinner gathering thousands of miles above the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof that thankfully was going to allow tennis to be played, on a rainy evening in Queen’s.

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The board had a major dilemma on its hands. It had to determine the outcome of the US Open quarterfinal clash between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro.

Said one esteemed board member, a bit of a traditionalist: “Awwww, we need to give all those fans who’ve been dying for at least one Federer-Nadal meeting in New York what they want. They’re not getting any younger. The clock is ticking.”

Said another, with a slightly wider view of things: “Of course. But isn’t it time we cut that very nice young man del Potro a break? We’ve been busting his chops for years with all these wrist surgeries and tough draws. I mean, don’t you all think we’d made him suffer enough?”

And so, the board was in the throes of a thorny dilemma. They were absolutely deadlocked between two good outcomes and unable to come to consensus.

Finally, after much deliberation, they decided not to decide. They would just stay out of it and let it play out. Whatever happened, happened.

Out-of-sorts Fed finally meets his match

What happened was something there had been clear signs of through the first 10 days of this US Open. But because Federer has had such an unreal first half of the season, no one wanted to pay attention.

The 36-year-old didn’t have it this entire US Open.

And he ran up against an inspired Argentine who, this night and through this tournament, very much did.

The 2009 US Open champion dispatched Federer 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4. It is del Potro, not Federer, who will meet Nadal in the semifinal on Friday.

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Almost immediately, the price for tickets to that match tumbled on the secondary market.

Before the match, asked to describe his opponent, Federer said this: “Big serve, big forehand, big heart.”

After scraping through his fourth-round match against Dominic Thiem by the skin of his teeth, suffering from a virus and a stye in his eye and low on energy, del Potro came back two days later and played his best match of the tournament.

It was a champion’s move.

“I did everything well. I served so good, I hit my forehand as hard as I can. And I think we played a great match and I deserved to win in the end,” he said during his on-court interview.

A smiling Federer, who offered a hug, too, greeted him at the net after the win.

Not enough mind, body, or game

And it was a lucid Federer who broke it down afterwards.

“I think there’s definitely things, you know, that happened in the preparation and throughout the tournament that led to my performance today, because I can play much better but I can play worse, too. So it was one of those matches where if I ran into a good guy, I was going to lose, I felt,” Federer said. “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.”

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The Federer support group had this look quite a few times during this US Open. They KNEW.

Federer didn’t have that feeling either at the Australian Open or at Wimbledon, he said. He felt in control of his service games there. And that’s the base on which he can mount his efforts to break serve.

“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,” he said. “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.

“Juan Martin did well. He served well, had some big shots when he needed to. That was the part, that he did so much better tonight, and that’s why he deserves to win.”

Not the back – exactly

Tactically, Federer wasn’t very lucid in key moments. Likely it was a function of, as he admitted afterwards, being weary after the hard yards to get healthy enough to even play.

Federer said his back wasn’t bothering him Wednesday night. And he said that it had been getting better throughout the event – something of a requirement, he said. Because if playing the US Open was going to make it worse, he wouldn’t have played.

But the back woes certainly contributed to the overall malaise he felt the whole way through, from the shocking five-setter against young American Frances Tiafoe and on.

“Did it take away something from my overall performance? Maybe not on the night. But leading into the night, you know, I just think it slowed down my rhythm and whatever it was throughout the tournament. Because I was never really able to turn it on completely,” he said. “I played okay, you know, but I never felt like I got to the great level I can play at. But that’s okay.”

Del Potro forehand firing

Tactically, Federer wasn’t nearly as lucid as he might have been. Certainly he hit too many balls to del Potro’s forehand. And this, even though he felt he couldn’t even afford to get into the rallies with the Argentine because he wasn’t playing well enough to stay in them.

The point that perhaps painted the best picture of that came at 3-5 in the fourth set, when Federer was serving to stay in the match.

He approached the net with a forehand he just cracked. But del Potro guessed right – you wouldn’t think he’d anticipate an approach shot to his big weapon, but after so many on the night, he did. The Argentine reflexed the ball right off the bounce – at a zillion miles an hour, headed straight for Federer’s head.

It was all he could do to get out of the way. And of course it landed inside the court.

A few minutes later, del Potro closed it out.

“Tonight I made my best backhands on the tournament in the important moments of the match, and it was in the set point of the third set, and then to break his serve in the fourth, and I hit my best backhand on the tournament tonight, which is a good signal for the future,” del Potro said.

Co-fan favorites – a Federarity

There aren’t many players in tennis who can break into the overwhelming crowd support Federer receives wherever he goes. Rafael Nadal in Spain, perhaps. Andy Murray at Wimbledon – but even that can be a coin toss sometimes.

There surely were more Federer fans than del Potro fans inside Arthur Ashe Wednesday. But the del Potro supporters were so deliriously loud as they chanted and encouraged their man, it felt at times as though they filled the house.

“You made me feel happy every time when I play here. And I love your support. I love to see all the crowd cheering for me, chanting for me, hitting my forehand the same time as me,” del Potro said.

He wasn’t emotional after this victory, as big as it was for him. The big guy was happy.

He knows he has more work to do this week. And he knows he has a shot at the title. He also knows that the match against Nadal, with two inexperienced, first-time semifinalists in the other half, is the de facto final.

Long time between Slam semis

His match  Friday will be del Potro’s first Grand Slam semifinal since 2013.

Del Potro’s backhand was steady enough that Federer didn’t feel it could be his go-to side. And he paid the price for that.

“I cannot believe to play another semifinal. All my injuries, all my surgeries, and especially to play here in New York is great,” he said on court.

“It’s my favourite tournament, my favourite city to play tennis.”

Federer legitimately believed that the right guy won on the night.

“Of course it is a pity, but, you know, Juan Martin deserves it more. I feel I have no place in the semis and he will have a better chance to beat Rafa, to be honest,” he said. “The way I played or playing right now, it’s not good enough in my opinion to win this tournament. It’s better I’m out and somebody else gets a chance to do better than me.”

Del Potro didn’t feel as though he was necessarily that guy. But he has two days to improve his outlook.

“Personally, I like to play against (Nadal) when I’m in good conditions. But it’s not the case at this moment, so I will see what happen,” he said. “But when you play semifinals on the Grand Slam, everything can happen. So you must be ready for the chance and playing against Rafa in my favorite tournament, I will try to enjoy the atmosphere, the game, and I know if I play my best tennis, I could be a danger for him.”

Looking down from above as they nursed their final brandy of the night, the tennis gods may well have been nodding in agreement as they wrapped up their special session.

Because maybe everything did work out as it should, even if they had nothing to do with it.

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