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Rivalries Of 2017: Federer Vs. Del Potro

ATPWorldTour.com begins its annual season-in-review series this week, kicking off with the five best rivalries of 2017. We'll look at one rivalry each day Monday through Friday

Beginning our Season In Review series, ATPWorldTour.com revisits the fiercest rivalries of 2017. Today we feature Roger Federer vs. Juan Martin del Potro:

Roger Federer's rivalries with his 'Big Four' brethren Rafael Nadal (15-23), Novak Djokovic (22-23) and Andy Murray (14-11) are celebrated as some of the best in the game's history. Somewhat less appreciated is his compelling FedEx ATP Head2Head series with Juan Martin Del Potro. The Argentine is one of a handful of players who, when at his best, has the firepower to overcome Federer's genius and it's must-see TV when Del Potro uncorks his forehand and plays go-for-broke tennis against the man many argue is the greatest player of all time.

Despite a lopsided 18-6 record in the Swiss' favour, nine of their past 11 meetings have gone the distance, with a 10th (this year's US Open quarter-final) going to four sets. In 2017, the pair met four times, with Federer claiming three victories. Yet it was Del Potro's lone victory at the US Open that proved most consequential of all.

Having not played since late 2013, due in no small measure to Del Potro's horror run with wrist injuries, the Swiss and Argentine resumed their rivalry after a 3 1/2 year hiatus in the heat and humidity of the Miami Open presented by Itaú in late March. Federer won his 15th match of 16 played to start the season by a relatively straightforward 6-3, 6-4 margin, saving all five break points he faced. That gave him what was at the time a 16-5 career advantage over the ‘Tower of Tandil’.

The Swiss didn't stop there, though. Two matches later, he'd save two match points against Tomas Berdych, before sneaking by a game Nick Kyrgios in an intense third-set tie-break in the semi-finals. And after taking out Rafael Nadal in straight sets to claim the title, Federer seemed an unstoppable force. He swept the year's first three 'Big Titles' — a Grand Slam (Australian Open) and two ATP World Tour Masters 1000s (Indian Wells, Miami) — for just the second time in his career (2006). All of a sudden, after starting the season at No. 16 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, a return to the top spot for the first time since 2012 was realistic.

Five months would go by without Federer taking on Del Potro, but this year’s US Open was just another example of why their rivalry is one of the most interesting matchups of this generation.

At first, it looked like they wouldn’t play in Flushing Meadows at all. The visibly ill Del Potro was down two quick sets against sixth-seeded Dominic Thiem in the US Open’s fourth round, and it was the Austrian who appeared destined to confront Federer in the final eight. But somehow with a raucous crowd behind him, Del Potro found new life, saved two match points in the fourth set, and battled back for the victory.

He couldn’t possibly have anything left for the Swiss in the quarter-finals, could he?

Federer had too much going for him. The second seed was 40-3 on the season going into the match, with titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Looming in the next round was Rafael Nadal, whom he had never played at the US Open, and fans were begging for the matchup.

Del Potro was still ill, and had just played a grueling five-setter — forget that he trailed Federer 5-16 in their FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry at the time.

But Del Potro has always found his best on the big stage against Federer. That is how he came back from two sets to one down against the five-time champion to win his lone Grand Slam in 2009 at the US Open on the very same court. That is how he led Federer 3-1 in finals at the time. That is also how he had won two of the pair’s three meetings at the Nitto ATP Finals.

"After eight years again in the central court of this tournament. I know how to play if I want to win," Del Potro said, remembering his victory in 2009. "But I will see how physically I feel after this battle. But always it's a pleasure to play the greatest guy in history."

Del Potro found his top level again in September, lashing out at his trademark forehand against Federer, who was not in peak form, to win the match 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(8), 6-4.

On paper, it was Del Potro’s fourth Grand Slam semi-final. But it meant so much more than that as it was a loss of great consequence for the third seed. If Federer had advanced to the final four against Nadal, the winner of that match would have left New York with the No. 1 spot in the Emirates ATP Rankings — the Swiss hadn’t stood atop tennis’ mountain since 2012.

And given that Federer would go on to win all four of his matches against Nadal this year — dropping just two sets — the No. 1 ranking and a possible third Grand Slam in 2017 was not out of the question.

Instead, Del Potro soared from 47th in the Emirates ATP Race To London before the tournament right into the heat of the battle, despite losing to Nadal in the next round.

And while Federer’s US Open loss was a brutal blow to his No. 1 hopes, the 36-year-old would get chances to pay back the Argentine.

They would meet again in the penultimate ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event of the season at the Shanghai Rolex Masters. At stake was another Federer-Nadal clash — this time in the final — while Del Potro was desperate to maintain his momentum as he pursued a return to The O2. But a scary fall on his wrist against Viktor Troicki made it unclear if he would play at all.

Del Potro would take the court and he showed few ill effects early in the semi-finals against Federer, taking the first set in commanding fashion.

But Federer would win 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 and go on to triumph at the event, once again beating Nadal. He also captured his third Masters 1000 trophy of the year, just the second time he had done that since 2007. 

"[It's] very painful now after the match, after the big effort it's the worst moment for my wrist," Del Potro said. "But they say I don't have any risk playing this match, so that's why I played."

Yet Del Potro's wrist did not keep him from staying in the Race hunt.

Soon after, they would meet again at Federer’s hometown event in Basel, where Del Potro was the only person to beat Federer since 2009, doing so in 2012 and 2013. Federer would win another three-set thriller 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-3 in the final, to claim his eighth title at the Swiss Indoors Basel. It was the continuation of an incredible year for Federer and a resurgent close to the season for Del Potro.

"You've been on a great run since the US Open and before," Federer said. "I'm very happy to see you playing so well again."

Del Potro had a chance in Paris to clinch an unlikely London qualification. But he would fall one victory short of the Nitto ATP Finals at the Rolex Paris Masters, losing in the quarter-finals against John Isner in what was a 'win-and-in' match. However, his magical run from the start of the US Open through the end of the season showed that the Argentine is closing in on top form once again. Now ranked No. 11 in the world with no ranking points to defend until the end of February, Del Potro is primed for a return to the Top 10.

Sure, Federer may have beaten Del Potro in three of their four meetings this year to add to his already lopsided margin over the 29-year-old. But Del Potro's one victory at the US Open had the biggest impact, proving a key obstacle in Federer's chase for the No. 1 ranking while propelling Del Potro to a fantastic close to his season.

View FedEx ATP Head2Head (Federer leads 18-6)

Federer vs. Del Potro: 2017 Meetings

 Event  Surface  Round
 Winner
 Score
Miami Open presented by Itaú  Hard  3R  Federer  6-3, 6-4
US Open  Hard  QF  Del Potro  7-5, 3-6, 7-6(8), 6-4
Shanghai Rolex Masters  Hard  SF  Federer  3-6, 6-3, 6-3
Swiss Indoors Basel  Hard  F  Federer  6-7(5), 6-4, 6-3

Coming Tuesday: Nick Kyrgios vs. Alexander Zverev