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By: Christopher Clarey, New York Times
The saga of Roger Federer’s most compelling Grand Slam season produced a surprise ending Monday night, when he was caught from behind by Juan Martín del Potro, the huge-hitting 20-year-old Argentine, in the United States Open final.
Del Potro’s 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 upset put an end to the No. 1-seeded Federer’s extended run of invincibility at the Open, depriving him of a sixth consecutive singles title and halting the major momentum he had acquired by winning the French Open and Wimbledon.
Del Potro’s victory — the first by an Argentine man in New York since Guillermo Vilas won in 1977 — required 4 hours 6 minutes, and it left him flat on his back and crying (Federer-style) with delight as soon as the Swiss champion’s last shot, a lunging one-handed backhand, had landed long.
At 6 feet 6 inches and with his long arms extended on the blue surface, del Potro took up plenty of space as he lay stretched out in the backcourt, just as he had covered plenty of ground in the late stages of this epic match, which featured baseline power in abundance. It was the first Open final in a decade to stretch to five sets.
“To win in five against Federer makes it even more special,” said the sixth-seeded del Potro of his first Grand Slam singles title. “Of course I knew it was going to be very difficult, and in a way, it makes it better that it was difficult.”
For nearly two sets, it appeared that Federer would continue surfing the wave of his own creation. For nearly two sets, he was serving below par but was in command once the ball was in play: reading the flow of the rallies beautifully, slicing precise backhands, ripping forehands and using his panoply of tactical options to befuddle the dangerous, more inexperienced del Potro, who looked tight and bothered by the reality of playing his first major final in the large stadium that had long made him dream from afar.
“This is my favorite tournament,” del Potro has often said: an original thought for an Argentine whose Grand Slam allegiances traditionally drift across the Atlantic to the French Open and its red clay surface.
But in a summer when so much had gone right for Federer on both a private and professional level, adding the crowning touch would prove too much to ask against his taller, more mechanical opponent. Until now, the only man to beat Federer in a Grand Slam final was Rafael Nadal, but del Potro was the Spanish speaker wearing the bandanna and sleeveless shirt across the net this time after sweeping past Nadal in straight sets in Sunday’s semifinals.
“You deserve it,” Federer told del Potro when he reached up to shake hands Monday night.
“Of course I would have loved to win, but I’ve had an unbelievable run here,” Federer said later to the crowd. “I would never have thought five or six years ago, I would win 40 matches in a row here.”
Serving for a two-set lead at 5-4, Federer went up 30-0 only to drop the next four points, with del Potro benefiting from a correct challenge at 30-30 that left the skeptical Federer shouting, “No way.” Del Potro would soon even the match at one set apiece.
If Federer does not choose to continue playing, as planned until the 2012 Summer Olympics, the electronic line calling system just might be the culprit. It irks him more than his opponents’ winners. He was against its implementation and has been one of the least effective of the top players in making use of it, and he got uncharacteristically surly late in the third set when he felt del Potro took too long to challenge.
Leading by 5-4, Federer became testy with the chair umpire Jake Garner during the changeover. Federer, a hothead in his youth, has long been a remarkably well-mannered champion, but he used an expletive after snapping: “Don’t tell me to be quiet, O.K.? When I want to talk, I talk.”
Federer later said the incident had not been a distraction. “You know what I think,” he said of the system. “It shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
But Federer, unlike Serena Williams on Saturday night, did not let his frustration descend into physically threatening an official. Instead, he regained his composure and won the third set on consecutive double faults from del Potro. Only then did Federer gradually lose his edge and his title, as his consistency dipped in the final two sets and del Potro began generating gasps from the crowd of more than 23,000 by clubbing forehands for winners on a regular basis. Midway through the fourth set, del Potro hit a forehand winner and slapped hands with fans.
Men’s tennis now has another shot to add to its greatest hits list, but del Potro’s huge serve and two-handed backhand are also effective. The racket looks small in his hands. “He played a great match; he will win many more,” said Vilas, who was in the stands.
As del Potro dictated terms in the final set, it was hard not to flash back to the last match he and Federer played on a hardcourt and marvel at how quickly 20-year-old tennis players can scale the heights.
In the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, del Potro won just three games in three sets as Federer steamrolled him, leaving the Argentine dazed and searching for his words. But by the French Open, Federer already needed five sets to shake free of him on clay in the semifinals.
That was his sixth victory in sixth attempts against del Potro, but the Argentine was clearly gaining in capacity and confidence, and now he has his first major title after his first final: just as Federer did when he won Wimbledon in 2003 at age 21.
“It’s always an amazing effort coming through and winning your first in your first final,” Federer said. “You have to give him all the credit, because it’s not an easy thing to do, especially coming out against someone like me who has so much experience.”
Federer, now 28, had not lost a match at the United States Open since 2003, when he was beaten by a grouchier Argentine, David Nalbandian, in the fourth round. Since then, Federer has swept through five editions of this tournament, beating five different opponents in the final without ever being pushed to five sets.
Along the way, he has grown into the most successful player of the Open era, establishing a new career record of 15 Grand Slam singles titles by winning Wimbledon in July. Later that month, his new wife Mirka Vavrinec gave birth to twin girls.
But his dream summer had a downbeat ending. The fault was partly with his serve (he put only 50 percent of his first serves into play) and partly with the opposition. As at Wimbledon in 2008, when his winning streak was stopped by Nadal, Federer could not make it past five in a row at Flushing Meadows.
"Six would have been a dream, but you can’t have them all," Federer said.