Given the huge roars from the crowd coming out of the Grandstand court on Tuesday evening at the US Open, you would think Juan Martin del Potro was playing tennis in his native Tandil, Argentina and not in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
The 6-foot-6 Argentine has always been a crowd favorite in New York — and he only added to his legend by overcoming a sickness and a two-sets-to-love deficit to beat No. 6 Dominic Thiem in a thrilling five-setter that many are calling the match of the tournament.
“It was very important because I was trying to retire the match in the second set,” del Potro, 28, said of the crowd support. “Then I saw the crowd waiting for more tennis, waiting for my good forehands, good serves. I took all that energy to change in a good way and think about the fight and not retire.
“I did well, and I start to enjoy a little bit more about the fans. I think I did everything well after the third set. The crowd enjoys with me all points. It was an unbelievable atmosphere.”
The crowd for del Potro’s next match may be conflicted because he will play No. 3 Roger Federer, the five-time US Open champ and 19-time major winner in a highly-anticipated quarterfinal on Wednesday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Federer almost always has the support of the majority of the fans, but del Potro will surely have his supporters in this one.
“He was gone for so long [with wrist injuries] that it’s just really nice to see him back playing in these kinds of matches,” said Federer, 36. “That’s what he came back for. To get crowd support the way he got it. We could even hear it on center court.”
Del Potro became a crowd favorite in New York when he captured his only Grand Slam title at the US Open in 2009, using his massive serve and huge flat forehand to beat Rafael Nadal in the semifinals and then Federer in the final. The loss snapped a 40-match winning streak for Federer at the Open.
At the time, many thought it signified the first of several majors for the Argentine, but he was hampered by wrist injuries over the ensuing years and at times it looked like he might never return to the tour. In 2016, though, he beat Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the Olympics before losing to Andy Murray in the gold-medal match.
“When he was hurt, clearly I didn’t see him for a long time,” Federer said. “I was sorry for him because I think he had a legitimately good chance to become world No. 1 at that time. “So I’m really happy for him. It’s a good match to look forward to. Reminds me clearly of the 2009 finals that we had, which was an epic, too. I hope we can produce another good one.”
Part of del Potro’s appeal to fans is that he’s a gentle giant who is capable of crushing massive forehands like the ones he brought down on Thiem, yet he’s also humble and soft-spoken.
“I know the people like when I hit hard with my forehands,” he said. “The people stand up from the chairs when I hit good winners. I like to do that. But it doesn’t happen very often. When I feel that confidence to do my best shots, I know I can be dangerous for all the guys.”
One of the key questions entering this match is how del Potro will recover following his sickness and a match that lasted 3 hours, 35 minutes. Federer’s win over Philipp Kohlschreiber, by contrast, was over in 1 hour, 50 minutes.
“He’s certainly one of the most dangerous players in the world so hopefully he’ll feel better and he’ll let it all hang out,” John McEnroe said on ESPN.
At this point, del Potro and 19-year-old Russian Andrey Rublev are the only players standing in the way of a Federer-Nadal semifinal on Friday. The two legends have met at every Grand Slam tournament, but never at the US Open. Nadal plays Amdrey Rublev in another quarterfinal on Wednesday afternoon.
Del Potro, for his part, is hoping for yet another win over Federer to spoil the party — and please his fans.
“Maybe I have the chance to play Roger again in this tournament which is special for me and I would like to play my best tennis,” he said.