There were times when Juan Martin Del Potro was convinced he would never pick up a racquet again. That will happen when your body breaks down with the frequency the Argentine’s did between 2010 and 2015. He’d undergo no fewer than four wrist surgeries at the Mayo Clinic during that stretch, sitting out a total of 14 majors. So trying were Del Potro’s on-again/off-again rehab stints, that he thought about giving up altogether.
“I got depressed at home for a long while,” he confided during his run to the Indian Wells final this week. “That’s what I was thinking about, quitting tennis.”
Good thing he didn’t. For his sake and ours. On Sunday afternoon at the BNP Paribas Open, the beloved 29-year-old from Tandil, Argentina, captured the first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title of his career in dramatic fashion, saving three championship points to upset top-seed and defending champ Roger Federer, 6-4, 6-7(8), 7-6(2). It will stand among the very biggest wins of his career, alongside his 2009 US Open victory, which also came at Federer’s expense, and Argentina’s Davis Cup triumph of 2016.
“It’s difficult to describe in words,” said Del Potro. “It’s like a dream. I’ve been working hard to get this, and I did it after all my problems, all my surgeries. I can’t believe I’m here and winning a Masters 1000, beating Roger. It’s amazing.”
Federer has been holding serve 95 percent of the time on the year, but Del Potro found an opening early in the first set, breaking the Swiss at love for 3-2. He would consolidate the break and go on to close out the set in an efficient 34 minutes, dropping just six points on his serve (21-for-27).
A record (and vociferous) crowd of 18,347 would all but will Federer through the tense second set, one that came down to a heated tiebreak in which both players repeatedly jawed with chair umpire Fergus Murphy. Federer had three set points on his racquet at 6-3 in the breaker, however, Del Potro would erase all three, the last coming on a late challenge that left Federer none too pleased. Federer would later save a championship point at 7-8, and on his fifth set point send it into a third.
These opponents have long been friends, a mutual respect stretching back to their first match more than a decade ago. But you wouldn’t have guessed as much on Sunday, when they faced off for the 25th time. There was just too much at stake. Federer would snap Del Potro’s astounding streak of 32 consecutive holds with a service break at 4-all. The 36-year-old would then serve for the match at 5-4, only to see his opponent save three championship points, Del Potro equalizing with a massive forehand winner.
Having pulled off the Houdini escape, Del Potro, appearing in the final for the first time since 2013 (l. to Rafael Nadal), surged ahead 5-0 in the third-set tiebreak and never looked back. At the two-hour, 42-minute mark, he raised his fists to the Coachella sky, a Masters 1000 titlist in his 51st career attempt.
Federer was seeking a record sixth title in the desert. He was also looking to extend his unblemished 17-0 record on the year, the best start of his career. Though he held a lopsided 18-6 advantage coming in, had dropped some big matches against the Argentinian, including a loss in the US Open quarterfinals last year.
“I have to get over it. There is no way around it,” said Federer. “I feel frustrated that I let an opportunity like this go by. So it should sting for a bit. The question is how long? It won’t be long, but it’s disappointing talking about a great match like this, losing, even though I was right there. Next thing you’re shaking hands and congratulating your opponent. It’s like, ‘Okay, too good.’ You move on. I’m happy for Juan Martin. It’s a tough one. But I still had a good week here. I still see the positives at the end of the day.”