Del Potro Defeats Federer for 2009 US Open Title

23:11 Mon 14 Sep 2009
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Well, I didn’t see this one coming. I really thought that Federer would be too relaxed, too experienced, and just too good to lose this final.

He wasn’t. He lost 6–3, 6–7 (5), 6–4, 6–7 (4), 2–6 in a match that was actually closer than the scoreline reflects—Federer really had multiple chances to close the door on Del Potro and just couldn’t seem to quite take them.

He was dominant for the first set and most of the second, playing scintillating tennis, moving well, and dazzling with an array of winners. The only issue was his serve: his first-serve percentage was under 50. That he was up a set and serving for the second despite this was testament to just how well he was playing. The problem was that this meant Del Potro could get into almost every point, and was thus slowly finding his hitting range. In addition, Federer couldn’t just serve his way through the big points, something he’s normally excellent at doing. At 6–3, 5–4, 30–0, the match simply looked done. Federer just needed two points and Del Potro would become an observer of yet another triumphal procession.

He couldn’t get them. His first serve deserted him, and Del Potro refused to fold. Shockingly, Federer coughed up the break, and then seemed deflated in the tiebreak, and the match was once again in question. He recovered at the end of the third set, aided by two horrible Del Potro double faults to gift Federer the set, and at the start of the fourth Federer just needed to capitalize on one of his early break opportunities and, again, that would have been it. But he couldn’t do it, in some cases missing by tiny margins, and Del Potro again found the range on his devastating groundstrokes. It looked bad for Federer going into the tiebreak, and instead of raising his game, he put himself in an immediate hole with a double fault. Del Potro, on the other hand, served extremely well and never gave up the mini-break advantage.

Federer fell apart in the fifth, in a performance somewhat reminiscent of this year’s Australian Open final. He couldn’t get any first serves, and then his groundstrokes started to go, and he was broken to love. He couldn’t make inroads against the Del Potro serve, and serving at 2–5 found himself 15–40 down. I couldn’t believe it would end that way. Federer fought back to deuce—but then, possibly symbolizing the entire second half of the match, double faulted. To set up match point.

I still can’t believe he didn’t make Del Potro serve it out. Clearly the Argentine would have been favored, but serving out your first major championship against the best player of all time is not easy on the nerves, and I still think that Federer just needed a small sign of weakness to jump on. Instead of forcing that out of Del Potro, however, he produced it himself.

Federer’s serve was critical to the match; if he had been serving well but playing groundstrokes slightly less well, and had been ahead by the same margin in the second set, I think the match would have been over. I think that Del Potro would have simply required more time to find his range, since he would have been hitting fewer balls. The other key statistic is the number of break points against Del Potro that Federer squandered, especially in the second and fourth sets. That seems to be a characteristic of certain of his losses, especially against Nadal, and the combination of poor serving and not taking break chances is too much to overcome—even for Federer.

This isn’t to take anything away from Del Potro, who played excellently, dominated Federer from the baseline for long stretches, and refused to ever give up despite considerable pressure. He played a great tournament throughout, and deserved the victory. Nevertheless, he didn’t beat Federer with his A game (e.g. the Federer from Sunday), and Federer took his foot off Del Potro’s throat in the second set and paid the price.

Which is not, at all, to say that the better player didn’t win. The only thing that matters is who the better player on the day was, and that was Del Potro. One of the wonderful things about tennis, particularly over five sets, is that it almost assures that the better player will win. There’s no clock to run out, all the points must be earned, and they must be earned through peaks and troughs of stress, as well as against an opponent who will vary their game, and over a long period of physical exertion. The first two sets bear this out: the only weakness Federer was really exhibiting was his serving, and eventually Del Potro took advantage. As time went by, Del Potro was also able to exploit his advantage in terms of weight of shot, which he eventually translated into dominance in rallies.

The reason I claim the match was closer than the scoreline suggests is that it doesn’t indicate just how close Del Potro was to being completely out of the match in the second and fourth sets, and how a single good point (or serve) at the right time from Federer would have virtually decided the match in his favor. But he couldn’t get that done, and that was his downfall.

It was painful for me to watch, but not as painful as the Australian Open final. I think that this is because Federer has now broken Sampras’s record, and thus the sense of his being incredibly close to an achievement for the ages but falling short wasn’t there. (Even though six straight US Open titles would certainly have been an achievement for the ages.)

Still, it was significant failure given how close he was to making it a simple straight-sets affair, and leaves far more questions about him and his future lingering than I would have expected. (Including, I have to say, whether the back injury from last year has resurfaced, given how poorly he served.)

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