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BILL DWYRE

The Roger Federer freight train runs out of steam

Five-time U.S. Open champion loses his famed cool, just a bit, then seems to lose steam at the end of a stunning five-set loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the men's final.

September 15, 2009|BILL DWYRE

FROM NEW YORK — A U.S. Open tennis tournament that had something for everybody this year offered up one more juicy tidbit on its last day Monday.

Roger Federer lost.

That hasn't happened here in six years and 40 matches. He's like USC with a lead at halftime, Tiger with a five-foot putt.

But the man who played in all four Grand Slam tournament finals this year, winning the French Open and Wimbledon and extending his men's record for most major titles to 15, ran up against a new sheriff in town.

Riding high in the saddle was Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro, 6 feet 6 and even taller when he hit his forehand. The score was a seesaw 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 that gave him his first major title. Also a first prize, with bonus money, of $1.85 million.

For an announced crowd of 24,821 in an Arthur Ashe Stadium that seats 23,763 -- call the fire marshals -- this men's singles final was a 4-hour 6-minute roller-coaster ride.

Federer won the first set and looked his usual invincible self. Del Potro looked like somebody not quite ready for prime time.

Federer got up a break in the second set by looking the same. Then he had a little tussle over a close call while serving for the set at 5-4 and 30-all. Del Potro hit a forehand near the line, the linesperson called it out and Del Potro's challenge, after a longer delay in his decision-making than Federer would have liked, showed the ball ticking the line. A key eighth of an inch.

Federer hates the Hawkeye camera more than anybody on the tour, and this one really seemed to irk him.

"The mark was out," he said. "But apparently in. I mean, I don't know what to say. This thing is so ridiculous, anyway. I see the ball landing. I see the ball hanging, and then it's called out."

He made it clear that he wasn't blaming that for his loss, but it had to be unsettling to go from one set up and serving at set point for a second, to break point and eventual loss of the set.

Things seemed to unravel a bit for Federer after that, even though Del Potro double faulted twice to lose the third set.

"I start to think bad things then," Del Potro said.

But once the enthusiastic and slightly unruly crowd -- there always seems to be somebody yelling in the middle of each player's service toss -- got really into it, pushing Del Potro as it pushes every underdog here, Federer had a battle on his hands that he eventually lost. And he lost even though he got to within two points of the match 3:11 into it, with Del Potro serving at 4-5 in the fourth set.

Afterward Federer, in a way few others can, found perspective.

"I'm not too disappointed," he said, noting he's had a great summer run. "I thought I played another wonderful tournament. Had chances to win but couldn't take it. It was unfortunate."

He also said, "The year has been amazing already . . . got married, had kids [twin daughters]. Don't know how much more I want."

Had tennis done a boxing-style tale of the tape before this one, it would have looked like a certain rout:

Federer was No. 1, Del Potro an unheralded No. 6. Federer's career earnings were $50 million, Del Potro's $3.7 million. This year, Federer has won $5.3 million, Del Potro $1.7 million. Federer has won 61 ATP titles, Del Potro 6. Federer was 51-4 at the U.S. Open, Del Potro 12-3.

The one number that favored Del Potro was his age, 20, which makes him just over seven years younger than Federer.

Another number that wasn't on the advance sheet, but which ultimately told the story, was the Argentine's 37 forehand winners, including 19 in the last two sets.

Federer was asked about that afterward and pointed to the forehands of Rafael Nadal, Fernando Gonzales and James Blake as being stronger. After he watches tape of this match, he might want to reassess.

Del Potro's forehand might as well have been a howitzer. If anybody in the game can hit it harder, they need to be drug-tested. Del Potro passed Federer with a cross-court forehand for the break to go up, 2-0, in the final set, and kept it booming the rest of the way.

"I did my dream," Del Potro said, "and it's an unbelievable moment."

The day ended with Del Potro asking master of ceremonies Dick Enberg if he could say some things in Spanish to his friends back home, Enberg telling him there wasn't time (on the telecast) and Del Potro taking the microphone and doing it anyway.

The match had also included a woman in the stands dropping a cup on the court in mid-point, causing a replay; Del Potro dashing to retrieve a shot and high-fiving fans after hitting it for a winner, and the always composed Federer being caught by TV monitors in a discussion with the chair umpire in which he said, "Don't tell me to be quiet. When I want to talk, I'll talk. I don't give a [expletive] what you say."

Surprising stuff. But only fitting in a tournament that had:

* A first-week star in 17-year-old Melanie Oudin from suburban Atlanta, who had no weapons other than an iron will to win and who took out four Russian players, including Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova.

* Kim Clijsters and Venus Williams, among the best ever to play the game, each slapping a 6-0 set on the other before Clijsters won.

* Clijsters getting a semifinal victory over Serena Williams with a point-penalty on match point caused by Williams' unseemly outburst against a linesperson.

* Clijsters, a new mom barely a month back on the tour, winning the title to complete a Cinderella story that would make even Cinderella blush. Who can forget the sight of her daughter, Jada, running around on the court after Mom had won and treating one of the most coveted trophies in sports as if it were a piece of her princess tea party set?

So Roger Federer losing to an Argentine who should probably be playing basketball?

It kind of figured.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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