NEW YORK | Roger Federer’s list of tennis accomplishments is longer than anyone’s, but before Monday night there was one thing he had never done: lost in the final at the U.S. Open.
In a match that started on a breezy summer afternoon and seemed to end on a crisp autumn evening, Juan Martin del Potro squashed Federer’s bid for a sixth consecutive title in Flushing Meadows, outlasting him for a 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win.
The two men battled for 4 hours, 6 minutes, but when the final shot from Federer sailed past the baseline, it was del Potro, the 20-year-old Argentine with a big serve, big heart and even bigger forehand, who fell to the ground with arms raised and tears flowing.
“I don’t know how I can explain, because it’s my dream,” the sixth-ranked del Potro said. “My dream - done. It’s over. I will go home with the trophy, and it’s the best sensation ever in my life.”
To call this a changing of the guard at the U.S. Open would be premature. But it’s worth noting that before del Potro came along, Federer had met five different men in U.S. Open finals since 2004, and they combined to win just two sets. Del Potro did what few players have done, refusing to crumble when down early and hitting big shots when they mattered most, playing especially well in the two tiebreaks.
It was a match Federer appeared to have in control at times, especially early on when he took the first set and broke del Potro’s serve to take a 4-2 lead in the second. But del Potro got more comfortable with his groundstrokes as the match went on, often taking chances and pulling off forehand winners that might have registered in the triple digits on a radar gun. He pulled off 37 forehand winners in the match, including 19 in the final two sets.
He had a forehand winner on break point to tie the second set at 5-5. Another came on set point in the tiebreak, an inside-out swirler that rocketed past an outstretched Federer. He boomed two unreturnable forehands in the fourth set to go up an early break. And in the fourth-set tiebreak, it was his forehand again that carried him to tie the match at two sets apiece.
Del Potro came out strong in the fifth set, showing little fatigue as the match approached the four-hour mark. He broke Federer right away and held serve to take a 3-0 lead in the fifth, saving a break point as Federer desperately tried to scratch back into the match. Federer staved off two match points when serving down 2-5 but double-faulted to set up a third. The match ended when Federer pushed a backhand long.
For Federer, 2009 still will go down as a good year. He won his first French Open title in May to put him in rare company with titles at all four majors. And he regained the Wimbledon crown with a grueling win over Andy Roddick that gave him the record for most career Grand Slam titles.
“This one I think is easy to get over just because I’ve had the most amazing summer,” said Federer, who also got married and became the father of twins this year. “I tried everything, you know? It didn’t work. I missed chances. He played well, and in the end it was a tough fifth set. It’s acceptable. But life goes on. No problem.”
But this year may also be remembered for the two major titles that got away from Federer. The first disappointment came in Australia, where he lost to his toughest rival, Rafael Nadal, in a match that was similar in its ebbs and flows to this U.S. Open final.
Federer’s path to the Aussie final included a match against del Potro. But the story then was far different; Federer sent him home from Melbourne with a humiliating 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 loss.
Much has changed in eight months. Del Potro emerged this past summer with an aggressive power game that carried him to the title in the District and a finals appearance in Montreal. In winning Monday, del Potro became the first man other than Nadal to beat Federer in a major final. And he is the only man other than Novak Djokovic at the 2008 Australian Open to beat both Federer and Nadal back-to-back en route to a major title.
“It’s always an amazing effort coming through and winning your first in your first final,” said Federer, who will retain his No. 1 world ranking. “Got to give him all the credit because it’s not an easy thing to do, especially coming out against someone like me with so much experience.”