Continuing our Season In Review series, ATPWorldTour.com looks at the best two Grand Slam matches of the 2017 season.
Juan Martin del Potro appeared far closer to a plane ride back to Argentina than he did to a spot in the quarter-finals in Flushing Meadows when he faced the up-and-coming sixth seed, Dominic Thiem, on Grandstand in the fourth round at the US Open.
Thiem dominated the first two sets in just over an hour, and it seemed a lethargic Del Potro was wilting away — and quickly — due to a flu-like illness. There was no second wind in sight for the ‘Tower of Tandil’.
A thrilling 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6(1), 6-4 victory to set up a rematch of the 2009 US Open final against third-seeded Roger Federer seemed completely unrealistic. But that is exactly what the New York crowd got. (Read Match Report)
Thiem played a sloppy second game in the third set out of nowhere to concede a break, allowing the raucous crowd into the match and shifting its momentum.
“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 fighting and not retiring,” Del Potro said. “I started to enjoy little bit more about the fans. I think I did everything well after the third set. The crowd enjoyed with me all points. It was [an] unbelievable atmosphere.”
All around him, the same cry rang through the air.
“Ole! Ole Ole Ole! Delpo! Delpo!”
It was as if the fans chanting acted as a resurrection song for the 2009 US Open champion. All of a sudden, the shotmaking Thiem was getting caught far behind the baseline as if he were playing on his favoured clay. On the other side of the net, Del Potro was tap-dancing around his backhand to instead push Thiem around with monstrous forehands.
“I knew that it’s not going to go all the way like this because if he felt really bad, he would have retired for sure,” Thiem said of his mindset after the easy start to the match. “I knew that I have to maintain my level. Of course, the third set was bad. I mean, I played some really bad minutes. It was a great match I think, sets four and set five.”
The fourth set was especially entertaining. Del Potro broke, but Thiem won four games in a row to surge to a 5-2 lead, and he would serve for the match at 5-3. But after failing to convert on a 30/0 advantage in the game, Thiem sailed a sitting forehand well long to hand the break back. And from there, the match only got crazier.
The Austrian somehow halted the momentum to earn two match points on Del Potro’s serve at 6-5. But two aces quickly saw off the opportunity, and Thiem would never recover.
After a one-sided tie-break for Del Potro, the first nine games in the fifth set went to the server. But facing his second match point, Thiem double-faulted to lose one of the matches of the year.
In the next round, Del Potro would shock Federer and advance to the semi-finals, denying the first Federer-Rafael Nadal match at the US Open and keeping the Swiss from having a shot at leaving New York with the No. 1 Emirates ATP Ranking.
“I played one of the epic matches of my career here in the US Open,” Del Potro said. “I’m so glad to go through.”
But it had been nearly six years since the longtime rivals met in a major final. And after both dealt with injuries toward the end of 2016, nobody believed they would face off in the final at Melbourne Park.
So when they battled their way to the championship match, that was a victory in itself. In fact, Federer, who before Melbourne had not played a tournament since 2016 Wimbledon, said after the match that he “would have been happy again to [just] be in the final”.
And it looked like that was as far as Federer would get when he sprayed a forehand wide to go down an immediate break in the fifth set. But he would storm back, winning the final five games to claim a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory in the Grand Slam match of the year. (Read & Watch Highlights)
In the moment, it seemed highly improbable that even Federer could come back from 1-3 down in a decider against Nadal. But after Federer failed to convert on five break points in the left-hander’s first three service games of the set, he finally found a way to even affairs at 3-3, Nadal barely missing an inside-out forehand wide to give the break back.
“I had the chance to keep holding serve,” Nadal said. “If I hold that one, you never know. You are [then] two games, just two games away.”
But Nadal would not win another game in the match. Federer swept the final five games to close out perhaps his unlikeliest victory ever, lifting an 18th Grand Slam trophy, which was his first win at a major against his greatest rival since the Wimbledon final in 2007.
“I told myself to play free,” Federer said. “ I didn’t want to go down just making shots, seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa… I kept on fighting. I kept on believing, like I did all match long today, that there was a possibility I could win this match.”
At one point between the fourth and fifth sets, Nadal won seven of nine games. And when the Spaniard gains momentum, it is usually like trying to stop a freight train that has no brakes. But Federer stepped into the court and played even more aggressively than normal, attacking with his one-handed backhand to keep Nadal from going on the offensive first.
And although the victory took confirmation — Nadal challenged a Federer forehand approach shot on match point that clipped the line — the oldest Grand Slam champion (35 years, 174 days) since Ken Rosewall (1971) seemingly burst into tears of joy after claiming the win against all odds, becoming just the second player (Mats Wilander, 1982 Roland Garros) to defeat four Top 10 opponents en route to a major title.
“It’s a great draw because I’m in the draw,” said Federer before the event.
Little did he know that a fortnight later, he would be raising the trophy after a classic match in one of tennis’ most storied rivalries.