If Novak Djokovic weren’t facing Juan Martin del Potro on Sunday for the U.S. Open men’s title, Djokovic probably would cheer for the genial giant from Argentina.
“He’s very tall, has a big game,” Djokovic said of his 6-foot-6 opponent, “but at the same time he nurtures the right values in life. He cares about his family. He cares about his friends. He respects everyone. He fights every match from the first point to the last point. I think people can relate to that and appreciate what he brings to the tennis.”
Del Potro, the 2009 champion here, advanced to the final when knee pain led No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal to retire from their semifinal after Del Potro had won the first two sets. That was Del Potro’s 10th career victory over a top-10 player. He has lost one set here so far, to big-serving John Isner of the U.S. in the quarterfinals, and has added dimensions to his game beyond his thunderous serve and punishing forehand. “He’s playing tennis of his life, without a doubt, in the last 15 months,” Djokovic said.
Affirming his recovery from wrist injuries that nearly derailed his career, Del Potro holds a career-best world ranking of No. 3. Among his highlights this year: He saved three match points to defeat Roger Federer at Indian Wells in March, won the title at Acapulco, made a semifinal run at the French Open, and reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
“I’m excited to keep surprising the tennis world, as I did with myself,” Del Potro said Friday. “Never know what could happen in the future. So I’m happy just to be a tennis player again after all my wrist problems.”
Del Potro and Djokovic have faced each other 18 times. Djokovic owns a 14-4 edge, but they’ve never met in a Grand Slam final before. “That’s something new,” Djokovic said. “But I know what’s expecting me. I’ll try to prepare myself as best I can.”
Djokovic missed the final six months of last year because of a troublesome elbow that required surgery. He started this year slowly before building up to a quarterfinal appearance at the French Open, a straight-sets win over Kevin Anderson at the Wimbledon final — his 13th Grand Slam title — and a straight-sets victory over Roger Federer in a prestigious pre-U.S. Open tournament in Cincinnati, their first matchup in more than two years. His first two matches here lasted four sets but he has advanced in straight sets in each of the last four rounds and hasn’t had to spend a lot of time in the heat and humidity that prevailed most of the tournament. “He’s playing so good,” Del Potro said.
Djokovic said he expects the key on Sunday will be handling Del Potro’s booming serve. “How many returns can I get back in play, but also try to have some depth in that return, and how accurately I can serve, myself,” he said. “When you play a big server like Del Potro you feel pressure also on your service games.”