Always so cool, so consistent, so in control ofhis emotions and his matches, Roger Federer amazingly let the U.S.Open championship slip from his grasp.
Two points from victory against inexperienced, unheralded JuanMartin del Potro of Argentina, two points from a sixth consecutivetitle at Flushing Meadows and a record-extending 16th Grand Slamtitle overall, Federer, quite simply, fell apart Monday.
He railed at the chair umpire. His legs grew weary. Hisdouble-faults mounted. He could not figure out a way to stop the6-foot-6 del Potro from pounding forehand after forehand past him.In a result as shocking for who lost as how it happened, thesixth-seeded del Potro came back to win his first Grand Slam titleby upsetting the No. 1-seeded Federer 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4),6-2.
"Maybe I look back and have some regrets about it," saidFederer, never before beaten by anyone other than Rafael Nadal in amajor final. "But, you know, you can't have them all and can'talways play your best."
He had won 40 consecutive matches at Flushing Meadows. He hadwon 33 of his previous 34 Grand Slam matches. And he has made thefinal at 17 of the past 18 Grand Slam tournaments, 21 overall.
Del Potro? This was the 20-year-old's first Grand Slam final,and he was 0-6 against Federer until now. But after handing Nadalthe most lopsided loss of his Grand Slam career in the semifinalsSunday, del Potro came back the next day and rattled Federer.
"I would like to congratulate Juan Martin on an unbelievabletournament. I had a great one myself, too," Federer said, "but hewas the best."
That's some compliment.
Somehow, del Potro never seemed intimidated by the setting orthe man many consider the greatest tennis player in history.
The usually unflappable Federer argued with chair umpire JakeGarner during a changeover, using a profanity and saying, "Don'ttell me to be quiet, OK? When I want to talk, I talk."
He also got steamed while up a set and serving at 5-4 in thesecond. Del Potro tried a forehand passing shot that was calledwide, but he challenged, and the replay system showed he was right.Federer kept glancing at the mark the shot left on the blue court,even into the next game, and del Potro wound up stealing the set.
"That one cost me the match, eventually," Federer said.
Del Potro, meanwhile, managed to have the time of his younglife, high-fiving front-row fans after winning one point, andreveling in the soccer-style serenades of "Ole!" ringing throughthe stadium.
"When I would have a dream, it was to win the U.S. Open, andthe other one is to be like Roger. One is done," del Potro saidduring the on-court ceremony.
Then, addressing Federer directly, del Potro added: "I need toimprove a lot to be like you. I'd like to congratulate you forfighting 'til the last point."
The 4-hour, 6-minute match was the first U.S. Open final to gofive sets since 1999, and there were no early signs to indicate itwould be this competitive - much less end with del Potro down onhis back, chest heaving, tears welling, a Grand Slam trophy soon tobe in his arms. He is the fifth-youngest U.S. Open champion and thefirst man from Argentina to win the event since Guillermo Vilas in1977.
Vilas was in the stands Monday, sitting one row behind JackNicklaus.
One simple indication of the difference in age and status of thetwo finalists: The 28-year-old Federer's guest box was full, withpals such as rock-star couple Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale andVogue editor Anna Wintour seated alongside Federer's parents, wifeand agent. Only three of the 15 available seats were occupied indel Potro's box.
Federer took a 3-0 lead in 15 minutes, winning one point byracing about 5 feet wide of the doubles alley for a defensivebackhand, then sprinting the other way for a cross-court forehandpassing winner that he celebrated by yelling and shaking his fists.
He even took time to watch a replay on a stadium video screen.Not quite the "Did he really just do that?!" sort of trick shotFederer pulled off against Novak Djokovic in the semifinals - aback-to-the-net, between-the-legs, cross-court passing winner toget to match point - but pretty spectacular, nonetheless.
But del Potro eventually got going, swinging more freely andtaking full advantage of Federer's serving woes: 11 double-faultsand a first-serve percentage of only 50.
Used to traveling without a full-time coach, Federer generallyis quite adept at making mid-match adjustments and dealing withopponents' switches in strategy. But it was del Potro who realizedhe needed to put full belief in the strength of his 100 mphforehands and not worry about too much else.
That tactic worked, and Federer never found a way to counter it,losing leads in the second set and the fourth set. He was up 5-4 inthe fourth, and at 15-30 on del Potro's serve, Federer needed onlytwo more points to become the first man since Bill Tilden in1920-25 to win the American Grand Slam tournament six years in arow.
Del Potro held steady there, and Federer would never come thatclose again.
While hardly a household name, del Potro was not an unknown inthe tennis world. He burst onto the scene a year ago with a23-match winning streak and four tournament titles in a row on hardcourts, the surface used at Flushing Meadows. There also was a bitof a harbinger for this back when del Potro presented problems forFederer in the French Open semifinals in June, taking a 2-1 lead insets before frittering that away.
Federer went on to win the title at Roland Garros, his firstthere, to complete a career Grand Slam and tie Pete Sampras' careerrecord of 14 major championships. Federer then broke that mark bycollecting No. 15 at Wimbledon.
Thanks to del Potro, Federer will have to wait for No. 16.
From mid-May until Monday, Federer had been 32-1 with fourtitles from five tournaments. Aside from the on-court success,Federer's 2009 included getting married and becoming a father - oftwins, no less.
Quite a year. Still, one can't help but ponder this: No man haswon even three straight major tournaments in a season - much lessall four - since Rod Laver's true Grand Slam in 1969. Federer cameclose this year, his French Open and Wimbledon titles bookended bya five-set loss to Nadal in the Australian Open final and afive-set loss to del Potro in the U.S. Open final.
This U.S. Open was Federer's first Grand Slam event since hisdaughters were born, and he spoke proudly of quickly learning tochange diapers and getting used to sleeping less.
"Right now, I'm just tired," he said after his loss. "I wantto get a rest."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times