In a clash of two former champions, Roger Federer meets Juan Martin del Potro with a place in the last four at stake. Federer won the event five times in a row between 2004 and 2008, whilst Del Potro dethroned the Swiss in 2009. Federer has had the better of it since then, picking up another four Slams and has a real chance of returning to world number one this year. Del Potro has instead had to contend with injury after injury, missing years of his career as a result. But when the big Argentine arrives in New York magical things can happen. In the last match on Arthur Ashe, who will see their dream live on?
Federer and Del Potro have met 21 times so far in their careers. The first meeting came a decade ago at Wimbledon where Federer was a comfortable straight sets winner. In fact, the Swiss didn’t drop a single set in his first five matches against Del Potro. Particularly one sided was their 2009 Australian Open quarter-final, which Del Potro lost 3-6 0-6 0-6. Del Potro did push Federer to five sets in the Roland Garros semi-finals in 2009 in their sixth match, but lost after his fitness failed him.
Few then would have given the Argentine much chance when he came into their seventh meeting, in the final of the US Open. His odds doubtless worsened when he dropped the first set. He fought back to level the match in a tie break but then lost the third set. The Swiss pressed hard throughout the fourth set but it was Del Potro who took it, winning another tie break. The Argentine then broke to go ahead and sealed the biggest win of his career so far 6-2. Del Potro has scored four victories since then, and Federer another 10, but that match remains the defining one of their rivalry.
Path to the quarter-finals
Federer began his US Open campaign against Frances Tiafoe. Tiafoe, an American teenager, was not expected to trouble the great Swiss, but he confounded these expectations superbly. He pushed Federer to five sets and came close to victory. Ultimately Federer’s experience told as he completed a 4-6 6-2 6-1 1-6 6-4 win. It wasn’t a comfortable start to his campaign and his second round game against Mikhail Youzhny was also far from ideal.
Federer took the first set comfortably, winning it 6-1. But then to the surprise of all present, including perhaps Federer himself, Youzhny took the second set, and then the third. The Swiss, despite facing a second consecutive five setter, remained calm. As Youzhny’s legs began to fail him, Federer took advantage and levelled the match in the fourth set. That was the end for the Russian, and Federer comfortably wrapped up the match in the decider.
Fortunately for Federer, his performances in the third and fourth rounds marked a dramatic improvement. In the round of 32, he took on Feliciano Lopez, the often tricky Spaniard. But Federer came into the match with a 12-0 head-to-head lead, and Lopez was never able to really trouble Federer. The Swiss won through 6-3 6-3 7-5. In the round of 16, he met Philipp Kohlschreiber, against whom he had an 11-0 head-to-head record. Kohlschreiber hung with Federer early on, but a break midway through the first set effectively ended the match as a contest. Federer was comfortable thereafter and won 6-4 6-2 7-5.
Del Potro, the 24th seed, began his US Open against the only other Swiss in the draw, Henri Laaksonen, with Stan Wawrinka absent with a knee injury. Laaksonen played well and forced Del Potro to tie breaks in the first two sets. But the Argentine won them both and Laaksonen’s chance was lost with them. He next defeated the Spanish journeyman Adrián Menéndez-Maceiras in straight sets. He then dismissed the 11th seed Roberto Bautista-Agut in straight sets to reach the fourth round. There he clashed with Dominic Thiem. Del Potro, who had had a bout of flu, struggled early and looked to be heading out of the tournament after losing the first two sets 1-6 2-6. He fought back in the third, winning it 6-1 but after falling a break down in the fourth looked doomed.
Somehow he stayed alive, breaking the Austrian when Thiem served for it. Thiem forced two match points up 6-5, but Del Potro saved both with aces and held to reach a tie break. He stormed through it, winning it 7-1 after a massive forehand sealed the set. The decider was an edgy affair, but it was Del Potro who was pressing the most, and he forced match points of his own up 5-4. Thiem saved the first, but a risky second serve betrayed him on the second and the Argentine was through.
How do they match up?
The core of Federer’s game is his forehand. The same is true of Del Potro. Federer has one of the best serves in the game but it is his forehand that has won him 19 Slams. His backhand has, however, improved and he’s never hit it better than this year. A big part of that is the change to a larger racquet frame. That change has cost him some of the effectiveness he had with his sliced backhand though. Del Potro once possessed a fine backhand, indeed he hit it as hard as anyone on the tour. A serious wrist injury that required surgery and kept him away from the game in 2014 and 2015 has seen him lose most of the power from that wing. It has improved since his return in 2016, and he can now rally with the shot, but it is a weakness that can be exploited.
The key to the match, however, will be the battle between the forehands. Whichever man is most often able to impose himself from the baseline with his forehand will win the match. Both men are good movers, Federer’s defence has always been underrated, but neither can defend well enough to withstand the offence their opponent brings to the court.
Federer should win this match. Del Potro is not likely to be at his best after his long draining match with Thiem and his illness. When that is added to his exploitable backhand it is hard to see how the Argentinian can win. It will certainly not be easy for Federer, Del Potro appears to be a different beast in New York than elsewhere, and Federer will have less support from the crowd than usual. But the Swiss has enough quality to come through this test. Federer in four.
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