Column: Comeback complete, Juan Martin del Potro finishes Roger Federer for Indian Wells title

Sometime between his third and fourth wrist surgeries, feeling no relief from his debilitating pain and seeing little reason to believe he would regain the top-five form that brought him the U.S. Open title in 2009, Juan Martin del Potro considered retirement. His backhand was feeble. His spirit was broken.

After the fourth operation the pain began to ebb and he was able to rearrange the pieces of his game to compensate for the absence of that potent, two-handed backhand. Fulfilling life-long dreams of winning a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics and collaborating on a Davis Cup championship for his native Argentina a few months later freed him to play for fun again. “I took a good way to feel happy again with tennis life,” he said.

Standing at center court Sunday, his face raised toward heaven and his arms flung wide in joy after he wrested a tense and twisty 6-4, 6-7(8), 7-6(2) victory from Roger Federer in the final of the BNP Paribas Open, Del Potro savored the biggest achievement of his comeback. And make no mistake, he is back.

He gave emphatic notice by ending Federer’s 17-match win streak and winning the first Masters 1000-level tournament of his career, overcoming his frustrations with himself and chair umpire Fergus Murphy to earn his seventh career victory over world No. 1 Federer in 25 meetings. It was Del Potro’s fourth triumph over Federer in the six times they’ve played in tournament finals.


“This is what I miss when I was injured,” Del Potro said of the dramatic match and the cheers from the sold-out crowd at Stadium 1. “Now I’m excited to see what’s next. I’m still surprising myself and I want to keep surprising the tennis tour.”

After a routine first set in which Del Potro lost only six points on serve, the match evolved into a tempestuous affair in which both players got into nasty dialogues with Murphy, who had to caution spectators not to shout while players were serving. Both were unhappy with some of Murphy’s rulings, and by the time Federer had built a 5-4 lead on serve in the second set and squandered two set points in the 10th game, he was seething.

“I don’t want to get into the details. I think I was just also just trying to pump myself up more, you know, to get energy for me,” Federer said. “It had no effect on the outcome of the match. I think we both went after the umpire for different reasons, or the same reasons in different moments.”

Del Potro acknowledged he had directed too much attention to Murphy and not enough toward keeping his calm. “Roger and me were nervous during the whole match and we felt that on court,” he said.

Federer thought he had won the second-set tiebreaker on his third try but was called for a double fault after a review. He survived a match point against him at 7-8 when Del Potro netted a forehand, and he clinched the set on his fifth chance in the tiebreaker. “It was a lot of chances on either end. He should have maybe closed it first in the second set, I believe,” Federer said.

The third set stayed on serve until the ninth game, when Federer broke for 5-4 and then had three match points. “All his match points, hitting hard my forehand,” said Del Potro, who broke back for 5-5 on an excellent forehand winner.

Federer didn’t count how many chances he squandered. “It doesn’t matter whether it was 20 or one,” he said, smiling. “It’s disappointing, but I thought it was a good match. Yeah, Juan Martin was a bit better at the end. It was maybe a point here or there, maybe a shot, maybe a forehand, maybe a chip. … It’s unfortunate, but I’m happy for him. Well done to him.”

Del Potro dominated the tiebreaker, boosted by two double faults by Federer. “It’s just crazy how it can go the other way. But, you know, I had already missed my opportunities then,” Federer said. “Standing at the trophy ceremony, I think I would like to play that tiebreaker again, because I don’t know what the hell happened.”

Del Potro’s victory on Sunday altered the competitive landscape. With Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic injured and youngsters such as Borna Coric, Sascha Zverev and Taylor Fritz not ready to ascend to the throne, Del Potro appears to be the biggest obstacle to Federer’s continued supremacy.

Del Potro didn’t dare to imagine that possibility while recovering from those surgeries.

“I’m surprising myself every day,” he said. “It’s like a surprising life to me and I’m so happy for that.”

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen