In what was an incredible comeback from the brink of defeat, Juan Martin del Potro outlasted Dominic Thiem in an epic five-set quarter-final to book a place in the last eight against Roger Federer.
Unknown to most tennis fans, the big Argentine had been sick for the past two days and it was evident something was wrong with him right from the opening moments when he called for the trainer and doctor who supplied him with some medical treatment.
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 easy. But then when we start the third set, I broke his serve very quick, and then I won the set in 20 minutes. I starting to see the crowd. I took all the energy from the fans. That's what I did in the end, just keep fighting. Juan Martin del Potro
However, the 28-year-old former US Open champion fell behind by two sets-to-love before rallying on the back of the crowd who continually chanted ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ to spur their hero on. And he rewarded them with a thrilling 1-6 2-6 6-1 7-691) 6-4 victory.
“I play one of the epic matches of my career here in the US Open, which is my favourite tournament, in front of a great crowd,” a fatigued Del Potro commented later.
He then revealed: “I was sick the last two days. I came here trying to play the best I can and then when I see this crowd cheering for me, I was trying to play better every game.
“I think I fight like this because of you guys so thank you very much.”
There were moments when he looked set to retire from the conflict as the Austrian dominated the match.
“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 easy,” he said.
“But then when we start the third set, I broke his serve very quick, and then I won the set in 20 minutes. I starting to see the crowd. I took all the energy from the fans. That’s what I did in the end, just keep fighting.”
Del Potro won the last point with his final challenge, reversing a Thiem second serve call in his favour.
“I was scared for that ball,” he said. “But I got lucky, the ball was out, and I won,” and on winning, he raised his hands heavenwards in thanks as the crowd rose in ovation.
“I got exhausted after the last point of the match. That’s what I did with my hands, looking the sky. I’m so glad to go through. I played a fantastic battle against one of the best players on the tour.”
Hi next opponent Roger Federer, the man he beat to win the title in 2009, arrived as expected in the quarters.
“I have the chance to play Roger again in this tournament, which is special for me,” Del Potro said, adding, “I would like to have the trophy after these matches.”
He will have to be fully fit if he is to repeat that victory. “I feel tired. But we cannot do magic,” he said. “Just massage, some physical movement with the trainer. But hopefully my day off I can recover a little bit more.”
Meanwhile his vanquished opponent Thiem said he was not put off by the partisanship of the crowd. “I was enjoying it. The crowd didn’t affect the result of this match.”
In contrast Federer sailed through his fourth-round match against Philipp Kohlschreiber in preparation for what could be his toughest matches of the fortnight – DelPo and then the mouth-watering meeting with Rafa Nadal for a place in the final.
Federer routed Kohlschreiber 6-4 6-2 7-5.
The only drama came at the end of the second set when the third seed went off court with the trainer for a back massage, a moment which briefly instilled fear in his fans that his back problems had returned.
“[I] just needed a bit of a rub on my back, my bottom, and I didn’t want to do it on court,’’ Federer said. “I just felt something, my muscle being tight at the back, my quad, I guess.
“I just ran straight to the physio. I was done in three minutes and back again. I just didn’t want Philipp to wait. It was more precaution. It’s all good, no problems there. I’m not worried about it.”
It might not have changed the course of this result, but there must be concern in the Federer camp that his back will hold out against the stronger opposition which the Argentine and Spaniard are expected to provide.
Speaking ahead of his quarter-final, Federer said of Del Potro’s long absence off the circuit with wrist problems: “He was gone for so long that it’s just really nice to see him back playing these kind of matches. That’s what he came back for, to get crowd support the way he got it. We could even hear it on center court. That’s the first time I experienced that.
“He’s a good guy. I know him well. But when he was hurt. … I was sorry for him, because he had a legitimate 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 of the 2009 finals we had, which was an epic. I hope we can produce another good one.”