Comeback For The Ages: Del Potro Saves 2 MP To Stun Thiem
Juan Martin del Potro was barely able to move as he entered Monday's US Open fourth-round encounter against Dominic Thiem. Wrestling with the flu and a fever, the Argentine had no range and little rhythm in the early stages, but he refused to succumb to defeat.
Del Potro mounted arguably the comeback of the year, saving two match points to defeat Thiem 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6(1), 6-4. It marked the seventh five-set victory in his career and just the second comeback from two sets down. The 2009 champion is now into the quarter-finals in New York for the fifth time in nine appearances.
"I don't know how I was able to win that match," del Potro said to ESPN in his post-match interview. "I was sick the last two days and I tried to play as best that I can. When I saw this crowd cheering for me, I was trying to feel better. I fought like this because of these guys."
The New York crowd was draped in blue and white, with a heavily partisan Argentine contingent decending on Grandstand for the highly anticipated Round of 16 clash. Chants of 'Del-Po! Del-Po!' rang out, urging the Tandil native on, as he struggled with his stamina in the first two sets. Lethargic and fatigued, del Potro looked on the verge of tears as he laboured around the court. Two days earlier, he had fought through early symptoms of the flu to defeat Roberto Bautista Agut, but on Monday, the illness had wreaked havoc on the Argentine.
With little to nothing in the tank, he dropped an immediate break on a netted backhand. It was one of 15 unforced errors, to zero winners in the 36-minute opening set. With the match flying in Thiem's favour, del Potro received a visit from the trainer at 5-1 to receive treatment and medication. The rout was on in the second set, with a forehand long giving Thiem the immediate break. He would surge to a 6-1, 6-2 lead in a blink. It was one-way traffic. Or so it seemed.
Suddenly, as the third set got underway, del Potro rewrote the script. Thiem's level rapidly declined and del Potro, bolstered by the crowd and a rush of adrenaline, reeled off eight of the next 10 games to force a fourth where he grabbed a quick break. Out of nowhere, the 2009 champion suddenly had his forehand clicking and serve hitting its spots.
But Thiem would not let the seismic momentum shift last. Moving better and with more intensity, the World No. 8 rediscovered his level and he would break back and string together four of five games. It appeared the Austrian had found his grip once again with a 5-2 lead. He would serve for the match a game later, but del Potro was far from finished, breaking back and eventually saving two match points - both with mammoth aces - while serving at 5-6. A laser forehand sealed the set in the ensuing tie-break and they were off to a fifth.
The drama boiled over as the crowd's chants on Grandstand reached a deafening crescendo. Thiem battled back from a 0/40 deficit at 3-3 in the decider, but could not withstand del Potro's assault for long. The 2009 champion launched winner after winner, blasting his forehand with authority. He would seize his second match point as a deafening roar rung out throughout the grounds.
"I played one of the epic matches of my career here in the US Open, which is my favourite tournament, in front of a great crowd," said Del Potro. "I was exhausted after the last point of the match. But I'm so glad to go through. I played a fantastic battle against one of the best players on the tour.
"I was thinking to retire in the middle of the second set because I couldn't breathe, I couldn't move well. Dominic was dominating the match so easily. But then when we started the third set, I broke his serve very quick, and then I won the set in 20 minutes. Then the story changed a lot. I started to see the crowd. I took all the energy from the fans. That's what I did in the end, just keep fighting. I didn't give up on any points from the third until the fifth set. I was ready to win the match in that moment."
A rematch of last year's Round of 16 encounter, which was won by del Potro via Thiem retirement (right knee), Monday's meeting lasted three hours and 34 minutes. He extended his FedEx ATP Head2Head edge to 3-0.
"The crowd was on his side, but it was a great atmosphere," said Thiem. "I mean, we're not playing every day in an atmosphere like this. I was enjoying it actually. I mean, the crowd was not unfair at all. So it was fine.
"I knew that it's not going to go all the way like [the first two sets] because if he felt really bad, he would have retired for sure. So I knew I had to be there all the way. I wasn't really affected by the easy first two sets. I knew that I have to maintain my level. Of course, the third set was bad. I mean, I played some really bad minutes. It was a great match I think, set four and set five. Obviously the better ending for him."
Del Potro joins Diego Schwartzman as players from Argentina in the quarter-finals. It is the first time on the Grand Slam stage since the 2005 US Open, when Guillermo Coria and David Nalbandian advanced to the last eight.
Del Potro will next face Roger Federer with a spot in the semi-finals at stake, with the Swiss leading the FedEx ATP Head2Head 16-5. However, Federer was defeated in their lone US Open clash, in the 2009 final.