In a rematch of their recent US Open quarterfinal world #2 Roger Federer takes on former Shanghai finalist Juan Martin del Potro. The Swiss continues his increasingly unlikely attempt to haul in Nadal at the top of the rankings. The title in Shanghai is essential if he is to achieve his ambition of finishing as the year-end #1 for the sixth time, which would equal Pete Sampras’ record. The Argentine, meanwhile, is still in with an outside chance of qualifying for the season-ending finals in London. But who will emerge triumphant from their clash?
Federer and del Potro do not want for history. Over the course of their careers, they have met 22 times, with the first match coming over a decade ago in the second round at Wimbledon in 2007. Federer won that match in straight sets, indeed, he picked up the win in their first six meetings. But del Potro turned the tables on the great Swiss in their most famous meeting so far in the final of the 2009 US Open. Few backed del Potro coming into that match, and he twice fell a set behind.
But he roared back into contention before dominating the final set to win it 6-2 and pick up his only Major. Injuries have troubled him since then, and Federer has generally had the better of their head to head picking up ten wins since then. But del Potro has five of his own, including in their most recent match at the US Open where he stunned Federer in four sets in the last eight.
Path to the semifinals
Federer, as the second seed, received a first round bye. There he faced a tough test against Diego Schwartzman, who pushed him throughout but ultimately fell 6-7 4-6. That being said, had Federer been more clinical in that match he might have wrapped it up faster. He seemed to have learned from that when he faced Alexandr Dolgopolov for a place in the quarterfinals. The Swiss showed his opponent no mercy as he dismissed him 6-4 6-2 to reach the quarterfinals. Richard Gasquet, who has defeated Federer just twice in seventeen attempts was his opponent there.
The Frenchman played well, but a loss of concentration cost him late in the first set as he dropped serve at 5-5. He was then broken immediately in the second set but fought back well to repay the favour. Unfortunately, another lapse cost him midway through the second and this time there was to be no recovery for him. Federer finished him off with some good serving to complete a 7-5 6-4 win and move into the semifinals for the first time since 2014 when he lifted the title.
Juan Martin del Potro is seeded 16th in Shanghai and as a result began against Nikoloz Basilashvili in the first round. The ‘Tower of Tandil’ looked comfortable early on, winning the first set 6-2. But his Georgian opponent fought back to level the match. Ultimately, however, del Potro’s quality told as he came through a tight decider to win it 6-4. That earned him a matchup with recent US Open quarterfinalist Andrey Rublev. The Russian was outclassed from start to finish by del Potro, and fell 3-6 4-6. That win sent del Potro into the third round where he faced off against Germany’s Alexander Zverev. Zverev began brightly winning the first set 6-3. In a second set tiebreak, however, the world #4 was unable to kill his opponent off. The big Argentine took advantage, taking the tiebreak to level the match. In the decider, the momentum was with him and he held onto it, eventually completing the comeback win 3-6 7-6 6-4.
In the quarterfinals, he faced the unseeded Viktor Troicki. Few expected Troicki to trouble del Potro overly, but the Serbian has been as high as 12th in the world. Troicki played well early on, surviving some early del Potro pressure to take the first set with a solitary break. But an early del Potro break set the tone in the second set and he wrapped it up 6-1. He looked to have the upper hand until he fell awkwardly, landing on his wrist in the decider. The trainer was called with del Potro unable to grip his racquet. Few expected him to continue, but somehow he managed to win through. He completed an impressive 4-6 6-1 6-4 win. But with his wrist in a splint yesterday, it is not certain whether he will be able to take to the court against Federer.
How do they match up?
Both men are reliant on very different forehands for much of their success. Federer’s is an elegant shot that has earned him 19 Slams and legions of fans with its combination of aesthetic appeal and astonishing accuracy. However, del Potro’s forehand is a sledgehammer of a shot. No player has ever hit the ball even half so hard off the forehand as the big Argentine does. Indeed, such is the pace that he hits the ball it seems impossible that it should ever land in, but it usually does. Both men are also very effective servers, with the Argentinian’s 6’6” frame making up for any technique he may lack.
What will likely be the key battle is between the backhands. Federer tried to exploit this ‘weakness’ in del Potro’s game at the US Open and signally failed. Del Potro is hitting the shot with increased confidence, and though he may not find many winners with it, he keeps it deep and doesn’t allow his opponents to attack it. How Federer’s improved backhand holds up to the power that del Potro can attack it with, particularly with his inside out forehand will also be interesting. If either man allows their backhand to be broken down by their opponent’s forehand then a victory for them will swiftly become impossible.
Had del Potro not fallen against Troicki he may well have come into this match as the favourite. But at anything less than full health it is hard to see him defeating Federer. If indeed they play at all. The Swiss, meanwhile, has been looking solid all week. Federer in straight sets.
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