US Open Final Preview: Former Champs Del Potro, Djokovic Square Off
Third-seeded Argentine and No. 6 seed Djokovic for 19th time
Three years ago, Juan Martin del Potro felt the wheels were spinning as he struggled to gain any traction. His problematic wrists had again flared up and despite the very best in medical attention and rehabilitation, doubts about whether it was all worth it plagued his mind more heavily than any time previously.
If the Argentine had known he would contest a Grand Slam final again in 2018, any shred of uncertainty would have vanished. But such a prediction would have been outlandish to even Del Potro’s most loyal supporters.
There was nothing to suggest he would ever compete again, let alone at the highest level. On Sunday, the 29-year-old will get that shot at a second Grand Slam title, nine years after he stunned Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer back-to-back to win the US Open.
“The worst moment was in 2015 when I was close to quitting this sport because I couldn't find a way to fix my wrist problems,” Del Potro said. “I had been suffering a lot. I got depressed for a couple of months also. I didn't get the chance to feel better with myself, to do this again. That was the bad moment for me.
“But I think that is completely in the past, and now I'm… looking forward for the future. I didn't expect to get these kinds of emotions playing tennis again. Reaching finals, winning titles, having my highest ranking ever in this moment, everything is almost perfect.”
Novak Djokovic’s stint out of the game and struggles to rediscover his best level pale in comparison to the length and frequency of setbacks Del Potro has endured. But the Serbian, too, has been enjoying a resurgence in 2018.
He entered this year’s Australian Open as the No. 14 seed and was soundly beaten by inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals champion Hyeon Chung in the fourth round. Less than eight months on, he will attempt to win two straight Grand Slam titles for the first time since he completed the Career Grand Slam in Paris in 2016.
"I personally like [Del Potro] very much, not just as a player but as a person. He is a dear friend, someone that I respect a lot," said Djokovic. "We all felt for his struggles with injuries that kept him away from the Tour for two, three years.
"But he was always a Top 5 player in the eyes, I think, of everyone. Even when he dropped his ranking and started to work his way up, we all knew that he has a capacity and a quality to get to the point where he is at the moment. It was just a matter of time... He's a big-match player. He's a Grand Slam winner. He's playing the tennis of his life, without a doubt, in the past 15 months."
Del Potro has conceded just one set at this year’s US Open – to John Isner in the quarter-finals – and that could prove telling if he was to deny one of the sport’s fittest and best movers. The No. 3 seed led top seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal two sets to love before the Spaniard retired with a right knee complaint in the semi-finals.
Djokovic, too, has enjoyed a smooth path to Sunday’s final. The No. 6 seed dropped sets in his opening two rounds but has not dropped more than four games in a set in his subsequent four matches.
"I've played him many times on different occasions," said Djokovic. "We've never faced each other in a Grand Slam final, so that's something new... One of the keys of the match will be return, how well can I return, how many returns I can get back in play, but [I will] also try to have some depth in that return, and how accurately I can serve myself. I think that's very important. When you play a big server like del Potro, you feel pressure also on your service games."
But the Argentine knows he has what it takes to beat the Serbian on the biggest stages. Twice in Olympic competition Del Potro denied Djokovic – for a bronze medal in London, in 2012, and in the first round in 2016, in Rio de Janeiro.
“Well, it will be a difficult match because we are close friends,” Del Potro said. “For sure we both want to win. But Novak has won Wimbledon already. He's playing so good. He will be the favourite to win on Sunday.
“But I don't know. When I played Roger nine years ago, he was the favourite to win, as well. I will try to make the surprise again.”
As an added bonus, Del Potro will clinch his place at the Nitto ATP Finals if he wins Sunday's final.
Did You Know?
Djokovic will contest his 23rd Grand Slam final, the third most in men's tennis history.