- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2009

NEW YORK | If Juan Martin del Potro wins the U.S. Open on Monday to claim his first Grand Slam title, he certainly will have earned it.

The 20-year-old Argentine will make his major final debut against Roger Federer, the world’s top-ranked player and winner of each of the last five tournaments at Flushing Meadows. Del Potro claimed a berth in Monday’s final with a stunningly easy 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 win over third-seeded Rafael Nadal.

“I hope to be quiet for tomorrow to enjoy the moment, but [it] could be difficult for me because I’ve never played in a Grand Slam final,” said del Potro, who has dropped just two sets all tournament. “But I have the game to win tomorrow.”

To win, he will need to outplay the holder of a record 15 Grand Slam titles and every U.S. Open championship since 2004. Federer enters the final after an entertaining 7-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory over fourth-seeded Novak Djokovic.

Both men should enter the final with confidence after dispatching their opponents Sunday with an ease driven by sublime shotmaking. Federer’s savvy was perhaps best displayed late in the third set against Djokovic when he set up match point by tracking down a lob and hitting a searing shot between his legs for a clean winner.

“That was the greatest shot I ever hit in my life,” Federer said.

Del Potro, meanwhile, handed Nadal one of the worst losses of his career with a fierce baseline game, denying fans a chance to see the eighth Nadal-Federer Grand Slam final since 2006. Del Potro outhit Nadal, brushing off every attempt by his opponent to get back in the match. He saved five break points and hit 33 winners compared with 19 for Nadal. The 6-foot-6 del Potro wasn’t bothered by the high bounce and heavy topspin from Nadal’s groundstrokes, repeatedly passing the Spaniard with his powerful inside-out forehand. He served six aces and won 79 percent of points off his first serve.

“I played a great match,” del Potro said. “I was so focused with my serve, with every break point… trying to put the ball in the court and be aggressive.”

Del Potro came into the U.S. Open playing well, beating Nadal to reach the final of the Masters 1000 event in Montreal and overcoming Andy Roddick to win the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in the District last month.

Meanwhile, Nadal arrived in New York facing questions about his health; he skipped Wimbledon because of knee problems and took several weeks off to rest. Although his knees did not appear to be a problem during the last two weeks, his overall fitness was lacking and he was especially bothered by an abdominal strain suffered in Montreal. Nadal had been reluctant to talk about the injury but said Sunday he believed the strain had deteriorated to a slight tear or rupture. He said he will go back to Spain to have his abdomen examined.

Nadal refused to blame injuries for Sunday’s loss but acknowledged that the abdominal problem made it hard for him to serve out wide to del Potro’s backhand.

“I didn’t have any advantage on any one point with my serve, and with these kinds of players, and especially like the way he’s playing today, it’s impossible,” he said. “So just, yeah, congratulate him. That’s it. I think he’s doing really well, and today he was playing much better than me.”

Federer may offer a tougher test for del Potro, who has never beaten the 28-year-old Swiss. But the two men did have a five-set battle at the French Open, where del Potro held a 2 sets to 1 lead.

“He knows much more now today what he needs to do on a tennis court,” Federer said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen this time, because, again, Paris was clay. This is faster hardcourt. But he’s got… the all-court game. I think it’s going to be interesting.”

For Federer, playing Grand Slam tournaments is now about building on an already well-rounded legacy. His French Open title this year made him one of just a handful of players in history with championships at all four majors, and his victory at Wimbledon broke Pete Sampras’ record for the most Grand Slam titles. A sixth consecutive U.S. Open title would tie a modern-era record.

Perhaps most daunting for opponents is that Federer appears to be happier and more at ease on the court, especially after the birth of twin daughters in July.

“He’s maybe playing the best tennis of his life,” Djokovic said. “The way he stands on the court, the way he approaches the matches, it’s different, you know? It’s like he’s more relaxed.”

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