Roger Federer’s unblemished Grand Slam record in 2017 is over after the Swiss star lost to Argentine Juan Martín Del Potro in the quarter-finals at the US Open.
After Rafael Nadal’s comprehensive victory over teenager Andrey Rublev earlier in the day, there was a growing buzz among New Yorkers at the prospect of a Federer-Nadal semi-final in the Big Apple - the only Grand Slam city where the pair haven’t previously met.
Yet few could begrudge a marvelous victory for Del Potro, the former champion whose career has been blighted by injuries in recent years.
The 28-year-old enticed the Arthur Ashe Stadium with his sledgehammer forehand and thunderous serve, eventually winning 7-5 3-6 7-6 (10-8) 6-4 in two hours and 50 minutes.
Since beating Federer in the final here eight years ago to win his only major title to date, Del Potro has undergone two wrist surgeries, leaving him sidelined for prolonged periods. Twice he has battled back from the abyss after his ranking plummeted, and for that he has respect wherever he goes.
Del Potro has already saved two match points at this event against Austrian Dominic Thiem in round four, and 6 ft 6 powerhouse showed even more resilience and fight to prevail here.
Federer unable to convert the big points
As for Federer, he hasn’t had a bad tournament in New York by any means, though it’s clear that he didn’t reach the sensational heights which saw him triumph at the Australian Open and at Wimbledon. On the big points his major weapons, the serve and the forehand, appeared to let him down, while his improved backhand also seemed a little rusty.
Yet, such are the fine margins, the final result could have looked very different if Federer had converted just one of his four set points in the third set tie break.
Even at two sets to one, Federer may not have prevailed with Del Potro in such tremendous form. However, it would have given the Swiss more margin for error and more time to recalibrate his game.
In many ways Del Potro was fortunate to even make the start line for the quarter-final line-up, after coming from two sets down against Thiem on Wednesday. The Argentine was also suffering with a fever in that match, however there were no signs that it was affecting him early on.
First serve does the damage
Del Potro landed 78 per cent of his first serves in the opening set and didn’t face any break points before clinching it 7-5.
That inevitably dropped in the second and Federer took full advantage. The Swiss broke Del Potro for the first time just after the hour mark for 3-1, following a couple of careless errors from the Argentine. With the freedom of a lead, Federer quickly pulled away before leveling the match at a set apiece.
However, the 19-time major champion suffered a surprising lull at the start of the third. In the second game of the set, he double faulted on break point, handing the momentum back to Del Potro.
A couple of games later, the Argentinian returned the favour, double faulting on break point at 4-2 before Federer restored parity to the scoreboard.
Tie break proves decisive before Del Potro closes it out
Fittingly, the set ended in a tie break, which Federer led for the majority. The Swiss had two set points at 6-4 but couldn’t convert, after a Del Potro return landed on the baseline before a booming first serve from the Argentine.
Amid the drama, Del Potro then double faulted again but still clung on, eventually winning the pivotal breaker 10-8.
With the finish line in sight, Del Potro barely put a foot wrong in the fourth, winning 93 per cent of points behind his first serve.
The decisive break came in the fifth game when Federer decided to serve and volley on breakpoint and was stunned by a backhand pass from Del Potro.
When serving for the match, the Argentine didn’t flinch and will now take on Nadal for a place in the final.