Saturday 17 March 2018

Party pooper Del Potro has Nadal firmly in his sights

Argentina's Juan Martin Del Potro. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters
Argentina's Juan Martin Del Potro. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters

Simon Briggs

Juan Martin del Potro is one of the most popular men in tennis. Yet he sent a wave of frustration around New York when he outplayed Roger Federer in four sets in the quarter-final. By foiling hopes of a first-ever Federer-Nadal meeting at the US Open, the party animal had turned party pooper.

Inevitably, Wednesday night's result caused its fair share of groans. Less than a fortnight ago, New York's tennis anoraks were slamming Andy Murray's late withdrawal - not because they were desperate to see Murray in person, but because his decision left the draw lopsided, and cancelled the possibility of the perfectly scripted Federer-Nadal final. So how much more bitterness will there be towards Del Potro, whose victory cancelled the whole shebang? The answer depends on your personal allegiances. But at least he will carry many thousands of fans with him into tonight's semi-final. His global status far outstrips the weight of his trophy cupboard.

Like Croatia's Marin Cilic, Del Potro has won a single major title. Yet it is hard to imagine the fans on Arthur Ashe Stadium chanting "Maaar-in, Maaar-in" in the same fervent manner that they shouted "Del-Po, Del-Po" on Wednesday night. Judging by the noise, and the thousands of football shirts bearing blue-and-white stripes, we could have been in one of the 48 barrios of Buenos Aires. Few had given Del Potro much chance in this quarter-final - a judgement that had less to do with his quality as a player than the state of his health. Just two days earlier, he had been on the point of retiring against Dominic Thiem because of 'flu symptoms that affected his breathing. It was only the support of those same passionate fans that pushed him over the finish line in a five-set thriller.

Wednesday's follow-up was almost as dramatic, as Del Potro saved four set points in the pivotal third-set tie-break, and then surged through by a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 scoreline. Federer never quite settled. After suffering his first Grand Slam defeat of the year, he admitted: "I wasn't good enough, in my mind, in my body, and in my game."

On his way to the 2009 US Open title, Del Potro beat Nadal in the semi-final and then Federer in the final, becoming the first man to do the double at the same Grand Slam event. Tonight, he will attempt a reprise, only in reverse order.

Del Potro's terrible fortune offers one reason for his extraordinary popularity. The rest comes down to his charisma. Unlike most players, he does not fidget and fret between points, but moves slowly and dolefully - a tennis diplodocus plucking leaves from the high branches. The fans don't know whether to cheer him or give him a cuddle.

"I will try to make winners with my forehands and don't run too much," said Del Potro, when asked about tonight's semi-final. "Personally, I like to play against him when I'm in good conditions. But it's not the case at this moment, so I will see what happens. It's going to be an interesting match."

Meanwhile, Simon Carr's US Open adventure came to an end last night after losing his third round junior boys match to Russia's Timofey Skatov 5-7, 6-2, 1-6.

Carr, son of the former Dublin footballer Tommy, recovered to win the second set after letting the first slip through his fingers, but the Russian proved too strong in the decider. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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