Men’s quarters spark court assignment debate

WIMBLEDON – It wouldn’t be a Grand Slam without a good, old-fashioned debate about court assignments and scheduling and who’s being snubbed and who’s being given preferential treatment.

And so, as we arrive at the second Wednesday of Wimbledon and the men’s quarterfinals, we see three-time champion Novak Djokovic on Centre Court.

With that, we also see seven-time champion Roger Federer “relegated” to No. 1 Court for the first time in the tournament.

Actually, for the first time in three  years.

(Relegated is such a relative term here, as it is at Roland Garros where Court Philippe Chatrier and Court Suzanne Lenglen are considered virtual co-equals. Still, it’s a status thing that seems to mean a lot to some people).

Second trip to Centre Court for Djokovic

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Djokovic has definitely been hard done by at times with the scheduling. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The way people have been whinging, you’d think Djokovic had been turned away at the door to the celebrated Wimbledon Centre Court for failing to bring a jacket and tie.

That said, it’s fairly evident over the last few years that despite his sterling resumé, he’s rarely gotten the top-two treatment accorded here to Federer and, less defendably, to Nadal.

The Serb was on Centre Court on Saturday for his third-round match against Brit Kyle Edmund, after being relegated to No. 2 Court for his second round.

Until Manic Monday, there was never a choice to be made between Federer and Djokovic in terms of courts assignments. In opposite sections of the draw, they were playing on different days.

The choice, then, has been between Djokovic and Nadal – currently the No. 1 ranked player in the world, even if he is the No. 2 seed here because of the weighted grass-court seedings.

Djokovic is currently ranked No. 21 and seeded No. 12.

Nadal on Centre every match

Nadal has won out each time there was a choice to be made between the two. The Spaniard’s match against Juan Martin del Potro will be the fifth straight time he has been on Centre Court.

And the quarterfinals are the last opportunity to play anywhere else but Centre Court.

Nadal warms up on Court 15 Wednesday morning, ahead of his match later in the day against Juan Martin del Potro. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Djokovic said, after he squeezed his Monday victory over Khachanov in under the wire, that he had heard his last-on match was likely to be cancelled had the prior match between Kevin Anderson and Gaël Monfils had gone to a fifth set.

Meanwhile, a mixed doubles match involving Brit Jamie Murray and his partner Victoria Azarenka was played on Centre Court, with the roof closed and the lights switched to finish the third set.

It could all have been even worse. The absence of Andy Murray, who is pretty much an automatic (perhaps even more than Federer) to get a Centre Court slot made life a little easier this year for a lot of people.

Mid-match relocation rare

Djokovic dealt with that last year as well. The tournament wouldn’t move his Monday match, delayed by rain under the Centre Court roof to finish it.

(Tournaments rarely relocate a match that’s already in progress to another court. But it does happen. Notably in 2014 here, Genie Bouchard’s first-round match against Magdalena Rybarikova on Court 12 was moved to Centre Court, under the roof, on a day where just about everything was wiped out by rain.

There was a specific scenario involved there. The winner was to play Brit Johanna Konta. And they needed a Centre Court slot for her. And that was going to be difficult to manage had the second-round match been delayed a day, because of the other high-profile matches that needed to be scheduled. So yes, it’s pretty much all about television).

Last year’s stubbornness about not moving Djokovic’s match meant he had to finish up Tuesday. And on Wednesday, he had to retire in his quarterfinal match against Tomas Berdych. He didn’t play the rest of the season because of his elbow injury.

Luckily, that repeat scenario was avoided. Because Djokovic would have been right to raise a huge stink if it did.

assignment
The three kings of tennis practiced side by side by side on Sunday at Aorangi Park. But for the actual match scheduling, Djokovic is often the odd man out.

Federer to No. 1 Court, TV follows

So the seven-time champion Federer therefore led things off on No. 1 Court Wednesday for the first time in the tournament, facing No. 8 seed Anderson of South Africa.

Generally, the BBC’s main station is the spot for Centre Court action, while BBC2 has No. 1 Court.

Except … as Wednesday’s coverage began, Djokovic and Nishikori were nowhere to be seen on BBC1. The BBC lunchtime news was all over its coverage of U.S. president Donald Trump and other world leaders in Brussels, and didn’t switch back to the tennis until about 1:50 p.m., when they showed the two players walking onto court (50 minutes earlier)

After that, Federer’s match was switched to BBC1, while Nishikori and Djokovic was being shown on BBC2. 

It was all a very delicate dance.

The last time Federer played on No. 1 Court was against Gilles Simon of France the same round  – the quarterfinals – three years ago. Djokovic beat Federer in that 2015 final. 

Switching the matchups

Nadal vs. del Potro is the “fan favorite” match of the day, with both players having huge followings. So Federer was moved, risking the wrath of the all-powerful Centre Court debenture holders.

It also led to some scrambling as Federer fans who had tickets for Centre Court assuming their favorite would be there, trying to swap them out for No. 1 Court.

Meanwhile, the generally accepted scheduling plan that the two players who meet in the next round should play at approximately the same time wherever possible, was turned upside down to make this change.

The winner of Federer-Anderson will play the winner of the match between Milos Raonic and John Isner. But they play one after the other on Court 1.

Same scenario on Centre Court, where the winner of Djokovic-Nishikori will play the winner of Nadal-del Potro. And yet, they follow each other.

In this configuration, Federer or Anderson, and Djokovic or Nishikori will both benefit from some extra down time before Friday’s semifinals.  

The later the better for the Americas

The later time slots are more coveted by television in North and South America – which applies to Raonic, Isner and del Potro.

1 p.m. is 8 a.m. in New York and Toronto, 9 a.m. in Buenos Aires and 5 a.m. in Los Angeles. So the later the better, as far as the television rights holders in those countries. But the same is somewhat true in Europe, where the early evening match can spill over into prime-time blocks.

So there are no correct answers to this puzzle. Even though it’s typically not about the “best tennis matchup” or about fairness to all players.

But in the end, everyone will play and win, somewhere. Someone’s nose will always be put out of joint. and Isner and Raonic are probably happy just to still be playing on the second Wednesday of Wimbledon.

They’d probably play on the Centre Court roof, if they were asked to.

Last-minute decision for Juan Martin del Potro (video)

PARIS – Even though he’s an Argentine, a land where clay is king, it’s no secret the clay-court season is the toughest part of the year for Juan Martin del Potro.

The 29-year-old suffered a Grade 1 tear in his left adductor 10 days ago during his match against David Goffin in Rome.

And he’s unsure if he’ll have recovered enough to go best-of-five sets, on clay, at the French Open next week.

He told the media at Roland Garros Saturday that he’s taking it day by day.

It’s the last clay-court tournament – and it’s a Grand Slam – so he’s going to do his best.

Del Potro plays wild card Nicolas Mahut of France, possibly as late as Tuesday. 

Lucky top half of the draw

The bottom half of the men’s draw plays Sunday and Monday; the top half (which includes del Potro) plays Monday and Tuesday. No doubt he’d have made a request to try to get an extra day of recovery in and get a Tuesday start. And, as the No. 5 seed, they’d certainly at least listen.

Del Potro said sometimes it feels better; other times, not so much. 

He said the doctors he visited in Barcelona a few days ago said it would take about eight days. 

“I am improving, I am doing everything possible, if the recovery continues as it has so far, it is positive,” he said.

“I’m making this effort because it’s Roland Garros. That’s why I stayed in Europe. …  I have experience in this kind of thing. It is hour-by-hour.”

Big March for del Potro

Del Potro had a crazy-successful run through the hard-court swing in March with a title in Acapulco, another title at Indian Wells, and a semifinal loss to eventual champion John Isner in Miami. He posted a 15-1 record, and gave himself some recovery time after that.

The Argentine didn’t start the clay-court swing until Madrid, where he lost a third-set tiebreak to Dusan Lajovic in his second match.

In Rome, he defeated young gun Stefanos Tsitsipas in his first match, then retired at 2-6, 5-4 in the match against Goffin as he felt the adductor.

Practice with Nishikori

Meanwhile, the Wrist Brothers practiced Thursday on Court 3 at Roland Garros.

Both del Potro and Kei Nishikori have been through the grinder with wrist problems. Nishikori missed nearly six months at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, although he didn’t have surgery.

Del Potro’s multiple surgeries – on both wrists – are well documented.

It was hard to tell what kind of shape del Potro was in, as he didn’t move all that much.

Nishikori stayed behind for extra homework.

On Saturday, del Potro practiced with Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay.

Federer vs. del Potro in Indian Wells final

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – With all the absences, with Novak Djokovic going out early, and with so many high seeds gone too soon, the BNP Paribas Open men’s singles final turned out all right after all.

No. 1 seed Roger Federer and No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro, two extremely popular players both on form this season, will vie for the trophy Sunday.

After that, it’s possible one of both of them will finally shave.

The two fuzzy finalists took different paths to the final match Saturday as Federer grinded out a win, and del Potro cruised on a way the conditions made things challenging.

Federer looked like a man who pressed the snooze button too many times until halfway through his match against 21-year-old Borna Coric of Croatia.

Most often, television and the tournaments themselves demand the world No. 1 get an spotlight match in the evening session. At worst, he tends to play late afternoon. So the 11 a.m. start may have felt as foreign to him as a middle-of-the-night wakeup call for a commuter flight.

The ATP Tour said that Federer had had just two 11 a.m. starts prior to this in his career: in 2006 here in the desert, and in 2004 at the tournament in Gstaad, Switzerland.

“Pasta at 9:15. It was yummy,” Federer quipped during is post-match interview for ESPN.

Tough conditions, tough match

Potro
  Raonic never found a groove against del Potro Saturday. And his lack of effectiveness on serve was a bit of a shocker.

The No. 1 looked out of sorts, perhaps a little stiff and sore, too (the cold, windy weather is not a friend to any 36-year-old professional athlete). And before he knew it he was down a set an a break to Coric, the 49th-ranked Croat who pulled off a third-set tiebreak win over No. 7 seed Kevin Anderson in the previous round.

But Federer woke up. He adjusted his targets to cut down the errors he was making in the wind. And Coric woke up, too – only in a different way. Faced with the prospect of upsetting the world No. 1, he flinched just enough, strayed from a successful game plan just enough, to allow Federer to pull out a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory.

Better lucky than good – but both help

Federer admitted he had some luck. He also didn’t decide, when he was in big trouble, that perhaps it just wasn’t going to be his day and ride out the inevitable.

“I think when you are confident and maybe also experienced and you have that combination, there’s no real need to panic, you know, because you can assess the situation quite easily,” Federer said. “You’re understanding that the opponent is playing better. It’s breezy. It’s hard to play offense. And when I was playing offense he was defending well. In the neutral rally balls, maybe I was missing a bit too many times.

“I think Borna played a great match. He was very steady. I can see why he caused a lot of problems to a lot of players, and he’s only going to improve from here,” Federer added. “Look, I should have lost the match. I was down twice a break in the third, I was down a break in the second. So, yeah, no doubt about it, this was definitely the toughest match, maybe the toughest match (this season).”

Despite appearances – at least early on – Federer said he was fine, physically. He said he was just caught off-guard by Coric’s game, the way he absorbed power so well and how he neutralized his offensive game combined with what Federer termed a recent “recalibration” of his game style to become a little more offensive-minded.

“He won because he’s Roger Federer”

Coric thought he had it, at some moments.

The Croat said the quick start was a combination of himself playing well, and Federer not playing well.

“But he stayed in the match and he pushed me. He basically, you know, he said to me, ‘Okay, you need to win the match. I’m not going to give the match to you.’ Many other players, especially because I was playing very good and I was not missing, many other players would just give the match away, you know, and he didn’t do it,” Coric said.

 He won also because he’s Roger Federer, and because he plays great. … He played, I think, tactically very, very good, very smart in those very important points, you know, which I was a little bit surprised.”

Undefeated in 2018

Potro

Federer is now 17-0 to start the season – the best start of his career. Del Potro is not far behind him at 16-3. And despite some back woes earlier in the tournament, the Argentine looked in perfect form Saturday and had little trouble with Raonic.

The Canadian’s lack of match play this season – and the Argentine’s abundance of it – contributed to del Potro having more confidence in being aggressive in the challenging conditions. Raonic never found his rhythm.

“I was sort of trying to find a groove. Especially when you sort of haven’t played for a while, you already are overthinking a lot of things. And then, with the wind, you’re not sure. You don’t have just that calm and ease about going through things and figuring things out on the fly,” said Raonic, whose ranking will rise from No. 38 to No. 25 with his week in the desert.

“It was surprising to see him serving not too hard, and I broke his serve very quick in both sets. That give me the control of the match,” del Potro said. ” I play a smart game, because the conditions were tough to play, but I did everything good. And I served well. I took all my chances. It was an easier match than what I expect before.”

25th meeting between Federer and del Potro

PotroFederer is 18-6 against del Potro during their careers.

But despite that rather lopsided head-to-head, they have had some fascinating tussles. Del Potro has defeated Federer at some of the tournaments that mean the most to him. He won back-to-back three-setters in the finals of the Basel event (Federer’s hometown tournament) in 2012 and 2013. And he has beaten Federer twice at the US Open, including last year.

“We both know what the other is trying to do, and we try to stop the other person from doing it. But it’s hard when me or him is in full flight. It’s basically an arm wrestle the whole time, and I think we enjoy that,” Federer said.

Raonic, the No. 32 seed, makes Indian Wells semis

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The last time Milos Raonic played the BNP Paribas Open in 2016, he lost to Novak Djokovic in the final.

For five straight years, the 27-year-old Canadian went one round better each year – from the third round through to the ultimate one.

After missing it a year ago, and dealing with a laundry list of physical woes, and starting the 2018 season at less than peak fitness and searching for a coach, perhaps Raonic was looking for his oasis.

And maybe he has found it.

Raonic defeated No. 18 seed Sam Querrey 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 Friday to advance to the semifinals, where he will face Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina.

“A lot of things were very good. … I have to be disciplined with myself to put a good level consistently throughout, from start to end. I was a little bit up and down too much, and if I don’t get lucky like I did at the end of that first set, it’s a very different storyline,” Raonic said. “So it’s important, I’m happy about it, but still got a long ways to go, a lot of things to keep working on and doing better.”

Calm, quiet, easy Indian Wells

seed

Del Potro, who has been dealing with a sore back, also needed three sets (against Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany) to get through.

“It’s a little bit quieter here. It’s easier to be around the tennis. You don’t have to fight through traffic to get here. You get here with ease. So I think that gives me a personal calm.,” Raonic said. ” I think the conditions help. Obviously this year it’s quite a bit slower than it has been in the past, but the ball still moves through the air even though the court slows it down a bit. But it’s always bounced high.

“So I think there have been a lot of things that have contributed to me feeling comfortable here,” he added.

Things have unfolded in just the right way – including a walkover in the fourth round over an ill Marcos Baghdatis – and Raonic has taken full advantage of it.

He squeezed into the last seeded spot, No. 32, only late in the game. So he got here early enough to have plenty of practice on the rather unique courts. 

And in his first match, he met much-younger countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime, who had just won the first ATP Tour-level match of his career and who remains, understandably, a little in awe of a player he has looked up to.

The opener against young countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime was a tricky one, but Raonic played solidly. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Pumped up against the kid

Raonic remember seeing “little Félix” around the national training centre in Montreal when he first arrived there from Toronto. He’d have been 16 or 17; Auger-Aliassime around seven.

The notion of losing in that situation definitely pushed a few buttons.

“Yeah, the pressure of it, it sort of was on the end of things. I think that also, at the end of that match there was some kind of sense of relief, as well, to get through that. Especially with not just everybody else, but myself, questioning … how things were going to come along,” he said.

If there was relief, there also perhaps was a spark that Raonic might not have had in his three earlier tournaments, where he went out at the first hurdle twice, and only won one match in all.

After that victory over Auger-Aliassime, in which he played very well, he was in the tournament in a way he might not quite have been in the others.

“Second match also I was a little bit borderline there, and I put it together today, as well. So there has been a lot of moments of relief that have occurred throughout this week so far,” Raonic said.

Aggressive play, simplified tennis

seedThe Canadian has been ultra-aggressive on the ultra-slow courts, something that might seem counter-intuitive but in reality makes perfect sense for him.

Raonic’s serve – especially the kick serve that bounces up higher here than almost anywhere – remains as effective as it is anywhere. Never a player who will outlast a relentless baseliner even at his very best, the Canadian’s current fitness level and lack of match play would strike a line through that tactic anyway.

Goran Ivanisevic, the coach who is on trial with Raonic through this event and the next one in Miami, is telling him to keep it simple.

“The one thing he has done is he’s made the objectives very clear with me and really tried to simplify things, just so I can stick to the things I know how to do well and not try to overcomplicate my tennis at this moment,” Raonic said. “When you make a decision, go for it. Don’t question it. Don’t think about the ‘what ifs’. What should I do? What shouldn’t I do? Just stick (to it).”

No doubt Ivanisevic, the former coach of Marin Cilic, will get far more credit than he warrants for Raonic’s good week. Punditry is like that. It’s more likely that he’s in the right place, right when Raonic is healthy enough to truly start his season.

The Canadian probably doesn’t need a former Wimbledon champion to tell him to keep it simple. Any tennis fan watching him probably could offer that same advice. But there’s no doubt it’s what he needs to hear at the moment. And apply it.

“At the end of the day, my tennis should not be complicated. First chance I have, go forward, try to serve well, and rip the ball when you have the chance,” he said.

Raonic 2, del Potro 1

Raonic and del Potro split two matches within a two-month period back in 2013. Back then, del Potro had fully come back from his first wrist surgery and was in the top 10. Raonic was on his way up and just outside it.

A lot has happened in the interim – two big men battling their bodies.

They didn’t play again until a year ago in Delray Beach. Raonic won that one.

“Well, he has everything to be in the top again. His game is so good. His serves are very strong. He’s very good player,” del Potro said of Raonic. “So he just need couple of weeks to improve his ranking and be what he deserve to be.”

As it is, Raonic will make a nice leap from his current No. 38. Asked earlier in the week what emotions it summoned when he saw that number next to his name, Raonic said “anger”.

He’ll be at least No. 25, no matter what happens. If he can beat del Potro, he would move up three more spots. If he can win the tournament – making that one extra round to complete his Indian Wells staircase, he would be No. 14 and well on his way back to the top 10.

One win for del Potro, and he’s in

If Juan Martin del Potro defeats John Isner Friday in the Paris Masters quarterfinals, he’ll be the eighth and final qualifier for the ATP Tour finals in London.

Had someone told him this would happen just two months ago, when he stood at No 47 in the race, no doubt he would have laughed.

But somehow, the body has held up through a long stretch of tournaments, since then,  in which he has gone 20-4.

A title in Stockholm, a final in Basel and semifinals at the US Open and the Masters 1000 in Shanghai have brought him to this point.

At the beginning of the Paris Masters, there were seven players in the running for the final two spots.

By Thursday, despite David Goffin’s desultory defeat at the hands of wild card Julien Benneteau, he was almost in.

There was only one way the Belgian, who missed the entire grass-court swing after damaging his ankle on court during his third-round match at the French Open, could fail to become the first from his country to make the Tour Finals.

Pouille done

If France’s Lucas Pouille reached the final, and defeated del Potro there, those two would have made London. And Goffin would have been out.

But Pouille was beaten by Jack Sock later on Thursday. That eliminated him, and qualified Goffin.

Now, only one question remains.

Isner and del Potro have met eight times, going all the way back to 2008. Del Potro has won six of the eight – including the last two. He’s 4-2 against Isner in tiebreaks.

If del Potro beats Isner, he not only eliminates Isner, he also eliminates Pablo Carreño Busta (the leader in the clubhouse at this point, after losing in the second round) and Jack Sock.

Sock is not dead yet

Because, yes – Sock remains alive in the race to London.

His name doesn’t come up much; he’s definitely the sleeper, technically standing in 21st place in the race as of Thursday night.

If Isner beats del Potro, he’ll knock out the Argentine. But he still would have to win the whole tournament (including a potential victory over Rafael Nadal in the semifinals) to eliminate Carreño Busta.

Sock also would have to win the tournament. In the bottom of the draw, he has Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals, and the winner between Marin Cilic and Julien Benneteau in a potential semifinal.

Potro
Paris finals shootout for the final London spot? All-American style.

Obviously del Potro qualifying would be the most popular outcome in many quarters.

But if that doesn’t happen … how about a one-match, throw-em-down showdown in the Paris Masters final between the two Americans, with the winner getting a trip to London?

More wrist issues for delPo after freak fall

Here’s one sight no one who loves tennis wants to see.

Juan Martin del Potro lying on the court, grimacing in pain, grabbing his wrist. 

Either wrist.

A veteran of four wrist surgeries and two frustrating, long comebacks, the Argentine found himself in that position in the third set of his quarterfinal in Shanghai against Viktor Troicki Friday.

He got up and resumed the match after about a five-minute pause – and won it. But he’s uncertain for Saturday’s semifinal matchup against Roger Federer.

It was an innocuous-looking moment as del Potro backed up to hit a forehand – a move he makes 100 times in a match – and stumbled as his left ankle rolled slightly.

He fell – gently, it seemed, considering his height and size.

wrist
Del Potro used his left hand to break his fall, instinctively. But he injured his surgically repaired left wrist in the process. (TennisTV.com)

But he landed on his left hand and wrist. And he immediately grabbed it. He indicated later to the physio that it was the inside of the wrist that had taken the brunt.

“I don’t know how is my wrist after I fell down. I feel something wrong in that moment. But I continued to play, just playing slices, just to try to finish the match. But now it’s time to see what the MRI and what the doctor says. I’m a little worried, but I know (how) to deal with all these things,” del Potro said immediately after the 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory.  “I’ve been through in the past. I will see what the doctor says … Of course, I would like to play, I would like to be 100 per cent. But he will see in the moment what happens.”

Later, del Potro’s media-relations rep Jorge Viale said that del Potro left the hospital with the wrist in a splint. On the positive side, Viale indicated that anything more serious than a bruise had been ruled out. 

Del Potro will decide Saturday morning whether he can make the date with Federer, scheduled for 8 p.m., Shanghai time.

Three surgeries on the left wrist

The first surgery del Potro underwent came on March, 2010, on the right wrist. That was a tough-enough comeback. But he had three more between March, 2014 and June 2015. 

wrist

This time, they were all on the left wrist, which was the one he injured Friday. The comeback featured del Potro hitting mostly slice backhands. But still, he had been able to win a lot of matches. And as things progressed, his two-handed backhand was slowly getting closer to what it had been before all the surgeries.

The 29-year-old has been rounding into form at this late stage of the season. In fact, with his effort in Shanghai thus far, del Potro will return to the top 20 in the ATP Tour rankings for the first time in almost exactly three years when the new rankings come out next Monday.

(All screenshots from TennisTV)

US Open Day 12 – Men’s semis preview

NEW YORK – On paper, at least, the second men’s semifinal is the defacto final.

But let’s hold off on handing out the big trophy for now. Because Grand Slam semifinal newbies Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain and Kevin Anderson of South Africa have something to say about it.

Carreño Busta, 26 and Anderson, 31, will lead off men’s semifinal day at 4 p.m. EDT. They will be playing by far the biggest match of their careers. And the fascinating thing will be to watch how each handles the occasion.

Both players benefited immensely from the fact that Andy Murray’s late withdrawal led to a somewhat unbalanced draw. 

Anderson defeated a qualifier, then Ernests Gulbis in straight sets and then Borna Coric (who had upset No. 4 Alexander Zverev in the previous round but couldn’t back it up). In the fourth round, he caught a break with Paolo Lorenzi, who had come of a section of the draw that included Jack Sock and Gilles Muller (whom Lorenzi took care of personally). And then, a surprisingy passive Sam Querrey. Most players would take that in a heartbeat.

Carreño Busta’s dream draw

Carreño Busta had an even easier ride, relatively speaking. No less an authority than Roger Federer referred to that (maybe a little bit of shade?) after his loss to Juan Martin del Potro. 

He drew qualifier, qualifier, qualifier and then qualifier to reach the quarters. The last of them was 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov, who upset No. 8 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the early going but, after six matches, had run out of steam. 

In the quarters, he defeated No. 29 seed Diego Schwartzman, who was not 100 per cent physically but had done him a great service in knocking out No. 5 Marin Cilic and No. 16 Lucas Pouille along the way. Most players would take that draw in half a heartbrat.

In his quarterfinal, Anderson was as expressive and aggressive as anyone had ever seen him. At 6-foot-8, he’s one of the big servers out on the ATP Tour, with a great trajectory. But as his career has progressed, he has become more than that.

All that was missing, perhaps, was that aggressiveness and drive.

Anderson the favorite

Anderson leads their head-to-head 2-0. Notably, the two played just a few weeks ago in Montreal, and the South African won in straight sets.

These two are the opening act in the figurative and literal sense. Because ticketholders, as much as they might enjoy discovering these two, will really be waiting for the main event that takes place immediately afterwards.

Del Potro had been 5-16 against Roger Federer going into their quarterfinal. But he had beaten him in some pretty big matches, including the 2009 US Open final and, now, the 2017 US Open quarters.

His record against Nadal is better – 5-8. 

They had not played for nearly three years when they met in the semifinals of the Olympic event in Rio de Janeiro last summer. Del Potro won that one – an emotional effort. He defeated him three consecutive times on North American hard courts back in del Potro’s breakout year in 2009. 

It’s a tough one to call. Nadal’s level has been up and down this US Open. And with all the talk of a potential Nadal-Federer clash here – it has never happened in their careers and who knows, it may never happen – he might prefer this one. 

Del Potro down – but not out

Del Potro seemed down and out against Dominic Thiem in the fourth round, as a virus laid him out and turned his nose Stan Wawrinka red. Somehow, he escaped that one in an incredible comeback. And he rode the wave through the match with a sub-par Federer who nevertheless had his chances.

Two more days of rest, and playing the later match, will help del Potro get to the endurance level that any opponent needs to take on Nadal in a best-of-five set match.

semifinals

Nadal destroyed 19-year-old Andrey Rublev in his own quarterfinal match, losing just five games and expending relatively little energy. But that match didn’t necessarily reflect his level; more than anything, it reflected the inexperience level of his teenaged opponent.

The Argentine’s cheering section was large and in charge in the Federer match, definitely a different dynamic than the 36-year-old Swiss star is accustomed to. Against Nadal, it may be overwhelming. And the fact that the sun will have set and the lights will be on in Arthur Ashe Stadium should turn this one into a great event.

Doubles champions crowned

 The men’s doubles champions were crowned earlier Friday.

No. 12 seeds Jean-Julien Rojer of the Netherlands and Horia Tecau of Romania defeated No. 11 seeds Marc Lopez and Feliciano Lopez of Spain 6-4, 6-3 to win their second major title.

The pair Wimbledon in 2015, and finished a superb season by taking the ATP Tour Finals in London.

It was the first US Open men’s doubles final in the open era (since 1968) to feature two teams seeded No. 10 or higher. 

Their pure doubles aggressiveness was the different in what was a rather routine victory, after both teams had superb tournaments.

Rojer and Tecau had the much tougher road; they defeated the No. 6, No. 4 and No. 1 seeds along the way. Lopez and Lopez defeated the fifth-seeded Bryan brothers in the semifinals, losing their first set in five matches to that point.

Del Potro spoils the Federer-Nadal party

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.

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.

US Open Day 10 – What to Watch

NEW YORK – Whatever watching you’re doing, it’s going to be on Arthur Ashe Stadium under the roof.

When the schedule for the second Wednesday came out Tuesday evening, the US Open didn’t even bother trying to schedule the myriad of junior and legends and men’s doubles matches that would normally have been played.

The weather forecast was that bad.

To the four singles quarterfinals scheduled on Arthur Ashe, they did add three women’s quarterfinal doubles matches on the Grandstand. But that was with a hope and a prayer.

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Women’s Matches to Watch

[1] Karolina Pliskova (CZE) vs. [20] Coco Vandeweghe (USA)

Two more Americans will try to add their names to the women’s singles semifinal roster, along with Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens.

Those two got it done – both in third-set tiebreaks, Tuesday.

First up is No. 20 seed Coco Vandeweghe, who has the toughest task of all against world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova.

Despite being the top-ranked woman in the world, Pliskova has been very much under the radar during the US Open. Part of that was the stadium-court scheduling and return of Maria Sharapova. The other has been the success of the American women at their home Slam.

Pliskova’s hold on No. 1 was tenuous going in. There were, in theory, eight women who could have ended the US Open in the top spot. But most of them fell away quite early. That includes No. 2 Simona Halep, who was just five ranking points behind at the start and had far fewer ranking points to defend this fortnight than Pliskova, a finalist last year.

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Now, only one player stands in the way of the Czech’s maintaining the top spot: Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza.

If Pliskova doesn’t reach the final (i.e., win this match against Vandeweghe and her semi-final as well), Muguruza will become the new No. 1, the 24th player in the history of the WTA Tour to do so.  

Pliskova won their last meeting, on the indoor clay-court track in Stuttgart. But Vandeweghe won their previous two meetings, on hard court in Dubai and at Wimbledon two years ago, in the second round.

There will be big serving, and hard hitting. And, hopefully, some fruitful net attacking by Vandweghe to change things up.

[15] Madison Keys (USA) vs. [Q] Kaia Kanepi (EST)

The theme of the day for the women is power as two more hard hitters take the court tonight.

“Late Night with Madison” has become a theme with the 22-year-old American, who has fed off the well-refreshed late night crowds on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

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Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Keys had no hard feelings after their Stanford final last month – clearly! Both returned to the top 20.

This time, she and Kanepi are the opening act for the blockbuster to follow between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro.

Kanepi, sidelined for much of the last few years with plantar fasciitis in both feet as well as a bout with the Epstein-barr virus, has gone through the qualifying and won four main-draw matches to get this far.

Keys has played some marathons, but still would be relatively fresher.

There’s a decade between them (Kanepi is 32). But they’ve only met once, on clay in Madrid in 2015 (won by Kanepi).

Men’s Matches to Watch

[1] Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs. Andrey Rublev (RUS)

Nadal’s draw has worked out extremely well for him. He has yet to face a top-50 player, and Rublev is no exception.

But the 19-year-old Russian, who upset No. 7 Grigor Dimitrov earlier in the tournament, will be top 50 when this tournament is over. In fact, he’ll be in the top 40 no matter what happens against Nadal. Rublev also beat No. 9 seed David Goffin, clearly hobbled by a knee injury.

Nadal has never played Rublev. But he’s 1-0 against his coach, a Spaniard named Fernando Vicente. Nadal beat Vicente, who reached No. 29 in the singles rankings in 2000,  in straight sets in the first round of the 2003 US Open. Nadal was 17 at the time.

[3] Roger Federer (SUI) vs. [24] Juan Martin del Potro (ARG)

This rematch of the 2009 US Open final was the most hotly-anticipated potential clash on the men’s side with the exception of one – a potential Federer-Nadal semifinal.

That del Potro got to this place at all was close to miraculous, after he struggled with a virus in the 36 hours before his match against No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem.

Down two sets to none, aching and ailing, del Potro somehow found a way to come back and win in five. It was a match he called “unforgettable.”

He should be feeling better by this point. But obviously not at his best. 

Federer had an unblemished record against his previous three opponents (Mikhail Youzhny, Feliciano Lopez, Philipp Kohlscrieber). He’s 16-5 against del Potro. But the Argentine’s victories over him have hurt.

He defeated Federer twice at his hometown tournament in Basel, Switzerland. And he defeated him in the US Open that year, ending Federer’s streak of five straight titles at Flushing Meadows.

It’s going to be a long day of tennis before this one gets going tonight. Hopefully, the wait will have been worth it.

Improbable comeback puts del Potro in QFs

NEW YORK – He’d been suffering from a virus for 48 hours, had a stye in his eye and generally looked so gray and ashen you figured he might not even go the distance.

But Juan Martin del Potro is a tennis player. And unless they risk further injury by carrying on, tennis players usually play on.

Because you never know what can happen.

The 2009 champion somehow, improbably, and with some help from opponent Dominic Thiem, came back from two sets to none down to pull off a 1-6, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1, 6-4 victory Monday to reach the US Open quarterfinals. 

He saved two match points along the way, with two monster serves.

Del Potro will face five-time champion Roger Federer on Wednesday. 

Federer already knows what to expect.

DelPo feeling Po’ly

Del Potro said he was seriously considering retiring in the middle of the second set, not even an hour in. He said the crowd support – the Grandstand was full to bursting and with buzz to burn – inspired him to hang in there.

“It was very important because I was trying to retire the match in the second set. Then I saw the crowd waiting for more tennis, waiting for my good forehands, good serves. I took all that energy to change in a good way and think about fight and not retire,” he said afterwards. “And I did well, and I start to enjoy little bit more about the fans. I think I did everything well after the third set. The crowd enjoy with me all points. It was unbelievable atmosphere.”

Smaller court only enhanced fan frenzy

At first, the Grandstand – only the third-biggest court on the grounds – seemed somewhat disrespectful to the only former champion in the lineup other than Nadal and Roger Federer.

It was the only one of the eight men’s and women’s singles matches being played Monday that wasn’t either on Arthur Ashe Stadium (five) or Louis Armstrong Stadium (two).

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The atmosphere for the match between Juan Martin del Potro and Dominic Thiem on Grandstand was electric on Labour Day (Photo: USTA/Brian Friedman)

But it turned out to be a perfect arena for a dramatic comeback.

“I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move well. Dominic was dominating the match so easy. But then when we start the third set, I broke his serve very quick, and then I won the set in 20 minutes. Then the history change a lot,” del Potro said. “I starting to see the crowd. I took all the energy from the fans. That’s what I did in the end, just keep fighting. I don’t give up any points from the third until the fifth set. I was ready to win the match in that moment.”

Any comeback takes some cooperation. And Thiem did his bit. As mature and masterful as he can look when he’s winning, that’s how young he can sometimes still look when faced with a surging opponent or a tight situation.

The match ended on a double fault, which probably sums up Thiem’s day.

Next up, the 2009 rematch

Del Potro’s issues weren’t injury-related, which is welcome news for the next step. He’ll have more two days to recover from whatever virus he was wrestling with. So you’d have to expect he’ll be feeling a whole lot better when he takes the court against Federer in a rematch of that 2009 US Open final. 

As Federer was dispatching Philipp Kohlschreiber in straight sets nearby, inside cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium, he could hear the roars from the nearby Grandstand. “That’s the first time I experienced that. Clearly Grandstand wasn’t where it used to be. But, I mean, they had epic crowds,” Federer said.

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Federer’s win over Phlipp Kohlschreiber was routine. The vibe around his quarterfinal clash with del Potro will be quite different. (Photo: USTA/Darren Carroll)

“He’s a good guy. I know him well. But when he was hurt, clearly I didn’t see him for a long time. I was sorry for him because I think he had a legitimate good chance to become world No. 1 at that time. Him and (Nikolay) Davydenko, actually both of them got hurt at the wrong times in their careers. Both had a chance to go for world No. 1 at that time. ’09, I think it was,” Federer added. “So I’m really happy for him. It’s a good match to look forward to. Reminds me clearly of the 2009 finals that we had, which was an epic, too. I hope we can produce another good one.”

Federer was a combined 39-0 against his last three opponents at this US Open, and he kept those perfect head-to-heads intact.

Against del Potro, he’s an impressive 16-5. But when del Potro has defeated him, he has really hit him where it hurts.

Twice, the Argentine beat Federer at his hometown tournament in Basel, Switzerland (2012 and 2013). He defeated him at the ATP Tour Finals twice as well. And in that 2009 US Open final when Federer was going for a sixth consecutive title. Notably, Federer hasn’t won here since.

“The greatest guy on the history”

“I admire him, too. Everybody loves him. Is going to be interesting match for play. It will be after eight years again in the central court of this tournament. I know how to play if I want to win, but I will see how physically I feel after this battle,” del Potro said. “But always is a pleasure to play the greatest guy on the history.”

Federer’s crowd advantage is significant against nearly every opponent he plays – even against Andy Murray at Wimbledon, the crowd is somewhat torn. But in del Potro, he will run up against an opponent who will have plenty of support of his own.

He won the event, which always helps. But there’s a huge Spanish-speaking and Argentine population in New York. You could see and hear some of them going out of their DelPo-lovin’ minds during the match against Thiem.

But they’re not alone. There’s something about the gentle giant that just engenders a lot of love and devotion. Perhaps it’s the stark contrast between his hulking physicality and his gentle demeanour. Maybe it’s his journey.

“I don’t know. I think the people loves my effort to come back and play tennis. They know what have been through with all my wrist problems. They like one guy who never give ups, and he’s trying to play tennis,” del Potro said. “You can see my backhand is not good enough yet, but I’m still trying. I think the people likes that.”