Bud Collins

Stunning upset by del Potro? Roger

Roger Federer has to settle for the runner-up trophy after losing to Juan Martin del Potro. Roger Federer has to settle for the runner-up trophy after losing to Juan Martin del Potro. (Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images)
By Bud Collins
Globe Correspondent / September 15, 2009

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NEW YORK - It isn’t Roger’s Rumpus Room any more.

He was served an eviction notice from a playroom called Arthur Ashe Stadium to which he thought he had a lifetime title. It had become an annual custom for Roger Federer: drop in on New York like a one-man fireworks display, bash everybody in sight, and wrap up another US Open championship.

Such a great routine amounted to five straight titles, and for almost an hour last night, the Lord of the Swings was in oppressive form, leading a slightly known Argentine by a set, and serving at 5-4 for the second.

The young guy on the other side of the net was so nervous that he could barely hold onto his racket. He couldn’t sleep a wink on the eve of his initiation-by-near-collapse, wondering what he was doing in his first major final. He had been flattened by Federer in every one of the six times they collided.

But suddenly, abruptly, Juan Martin del Potro pulled himself together and became the strong-arm guy who would throw Rog out of his rec room in five fiercely played sets that charged up the 24,821 witnesses filling the arena.

One of them was Guillermo Vilas, the only other Argentine man to win the US title. But that was in 1977, and del Potro wasn’t born until 1988 in Tandil, a small city of about 1,000 in an agricultural area 220 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, where he fell in love with tennis, and where they’re probably dancing in the streets after his wondrous 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 decision.

Can you imagine what a player he’ll be when he grows up? Well, he’s 6 feet 6 inches and merely 20 years old. Never mind. He was splendid in his resistance to the greatest player of our time, serving and forehand-blasting his way to 5-5 in the fourth set when Federer was twice two points from victory, at 15-30 and 30-all.

Federer, in his stylish way of mixing speeds and spins, swooping to hit winners, was mopping the rumpus room’s floor with del Potro - until the awakening in that ninth game of the second set.

“I knew I had to win the second set to have a chance,’’ del Potro said.

He broke Federer to 5-5, getting more depth on his shots and getting good stuff from his double-handed backhand as well as the mammoth forehand. Into the first tiebreaker they went, Federer rescuing two set points to 5-6 only to see del Potro crash an inside-out forehand to close the set.

“I had things under control, but I think eventually the second set cost me the match,’’ said Federer, even though he took the third set as del Potro ended it with two double faults.

Even so, del Potro was blazing and believing, and Federer was slipping. Both of them had a dream: del Potro to win what he called “my favorite tournament,’’ Federer to catch up with Big Bill Tilden, who had won six successive US titles between 1920 and 1925.

“It’s a disappointment,’’ said Federer, “but he hung in there and played great.’’

“When I broke him for the first time [after 90 minutes played], I start to believe in my game,’’ said del Potro.

In the early stages, Federer was keeping the ball low, and the big guy wasn’t bending well. The Federer forehand was a rapier, stabbing for winners. But as the Argentine became accustomed to Federer’s tactics, his own blowtorch forehand was beginning to deliver.

“I thought of Paris, semifinals, where Roger beat me, 6-4, in the fifth,’’ said del Potro. “I was beginning to believe I could do better than that.’’

Federer double faulted to open the fourth-set tiebreaker, and that seemed to be the kiss of doom. Del Potro won every serving point, and they entered anything-can-happen-ville: the fifth set. Not since Andre Agassi beat Todd Martin in 1999 had the title bout gone five.

The Argentine was flying now, off to a 3-0 start. Federer fell in forehand barrages in the second game, and the last, blocking two championship points, but watched his last stroke, a backhand, fly harmlessly beyond the court.

“It’s a big deal,’’ he said. “Juan Martin should enjoy it.’’

As the concluding ball floated away, del Potro fell on his back.

“When I lay down to the floor, many things come to my mind,’’ he said. “First my family and my friends. I don’t know how I can explain because it’s my dream. My dream done.

“I will go home with a trophy and it’s my best sensation. Maybe next week I’ll be believing this.’’

Roger’s Rumpus Room becomes Juan Martin’s Patio, at least for a year. Don’t cry, Argentina - dance!