The Twilight of the Ponies

Rotterdam, Final

(1) Federer d. (3) del Potro, 6/1 6/4

For no defensible reason, Juan Martin del Potro remains inextricably connected with Nikolay Davydenko in my mind. There are, of course, the striking physical similarities (I’m astonished Ivan Reitman has not yet cast them in Twins 2, a sequel begging to be made). However, in looking past this, I am faced with only incidental similarities, although these still add up to something; perhaps only the elementary realisation that even a meaningless association can be hard to rupture, assuming I had any reason to try.

They finished 2009 as the most fearsome two players in the world, with del Potro the US Open champion, and Davydenko the winner in Shanghai and London. Indeed, they squared off in the final match of the regular season – which is the last time they played – with the Russian inspiring an awestruck del Potro to his famous assertion that facing Davydenko was akin to playing a PlayStation on hard mode. I discoursed at some length the other day on Davydenko’s subsequent plummet, which commenced about seven weeks later, in mid-afternoon in Melbourne. Del Potro’s fall occurred almost simultaneously, as he lost to Marin Cilic three days earlier, stricken by the wrist injury that ended a season he’d barely begun. Davydenko’s disappearance also featured an injured wrist, though whereas del Potro’s was definitive, the Russian’s was more pretextual for some unfathomed existential malaise.

Two months earlier and half the world away, both men had beaten Roger Federer at the O2, and remain the only ones to have done so. Indeed, since that moment Federer has compiled a 36-1 record on indoor hardcourts. The sole loss was to Gael Monfils at Bercy in 2010, after holding five matchpoints. The most recent of the wins were against Davydenko in the Rotterdam semifinals yesterday, and against del Potro in the final today. I know well enough that mere juxtaposition does not necessarily constitute meaning, but when coincidences pile up high enough, the mound can sometimes look like an intended structure.

Until he crumbled today, the Tower of Tandil – del Potro’s unlovely, and presumably formal nickname – had looked to be an imposing edifice indeed. He had seen of Viktor Troicki in the quarterfinals for the loss of just one game. He had thrashed the in-form Tomas Berdych in the semifinals, the Czech’s second loss for the year. He had every reason to think he was a strong chance in the final, especially when Federer’s wins over Nieminen and Davydenko had been sternly fought, and not entirely convincing. Prevailing wisdom had it that he remained bruised from his loss to Isner last week, and he’d touched down in Rotterdam to a circling media pack demanding an explanation for a few poorly translated remarks at the Davis Cup. Furthermore, the consensus was that Federer’s crushing win over del Potro at the Australian Open could be explained away as a bad day in savage conditions. A tight final was expected.

The opening game only confirmed this. Federer was serving first, but he wasn’t first-serving. He could barely find one, which was of concern, as his serve has lately provided a sure foundation, even when the structure above proved shaky. Del Potro looked assured. I suppose Federer did, too, but the Argentine’s game backed it up. There were break points, but they were saved. Eventually Federer found a first serve, and held. It wasn’t easy, as almost no service game today was. I can hardly recall Federer holding to love, which is hardly surprising, given he landed first serves at any uncharacteristically abysmal 49%. But then, del Potro wasn’t serving much better. The Argentine was broken in the next game, and again two games later. Federer moved to 5/0. Del Potro dodged the bagel by holding for the first, but copped a breadstick the next game. Suddenly Federer was hurling down baked goods with an assurance that matched his expression.

It would be wrong to say Federer’s game plan never varies when he faces a big man, because vary is exactly what it does. Spins and depths are perpetually altered, handcuffing flat drives are driven up the middle, and followed by gasp-inducing forehand drop shots – some crowds gasp at anything – which are themselves followed by Federer, gliding net-wards. As he does when facing Soderling, Federer’s idea is to never allow del Potro to plant his feet, even if it occasionally brings him undone. Several times in today’s final he sought the space behind the loping Tower – inanimate sobriquets always run into metaphorical trouble – only to find it hadn’t moved an inch. It’s hard to go behind a guy who doesn’t cover the open court. One forehand was held for an absurdly long time, as Federer waited in vain for his opponent to amble to the invitingly pristine hectares in the backhand corner. Whether through design or laziness, Del Potro stayed put, and eventually won the point. But for each of those, and for each enticing low slice that del Potro belted for a winner, there were five or ten others that eventually won Federer the rally. There is a winsomely innocent tendency for Delpo’s fans to believe their man saves his worst for Federer, but it has happened enough times in the last twelve months that ignoring his opponent’s role in this matchup has come to seem perverse. There is a reason why del Potro could so viciously maul Troicki and Berdych, and yet today could not get his claws into any of the seven breakpoints he earned, even against a serveless Federer. The reason was Federer.

The second set was closer, as Federer’s standard off the ground dipped, and his first serve continued its merry bender elsewhere. Each game became a discrete, miniature drama. The top seed broke for 3/2, but it felt counter to the run of play. Del Potro blew break points in every other game. Errors began to flow from the Federer forehand, and cries of Allez! from his mouth when the big ones went in. He was less assured now, but so was del Potro. Down a break, the third seed’s opportunity was stuttering and sliding away. At 3/5 Federer lifted on return, and moved to 15-40: two match points. Del Potro, from nowhere, found his serve, and saved the game. Federer stepped around to serve it out. The score line tells us all we need to know, except that the final game was just like all the others. It was not done easily, but it was done well.

Rotterdam is Federer’s 71st career title, and his first for 2012. The trophy looks like a decorative hubcap, although it is the Platonic ideal of elegance compared to the usual European indoor efforts. The names of past champions are inscribed around the walls of the Sportpaleis. The camera picked out ‘2005 Federer’ at one point. ‘2012 Federer’ had been added before the trophy ceremony was complete. Richard Krajicek, the tournament director, proudly pointed this out to the champion on the podium. Federer looked bemused. What do you say to that? To del Potro, he said all the right things, in particular that he hoped to see the Argentine at the World Tour Finals in November. It’s a long way away, but based on this week if not this day, the world No.10 is travelling in the right direction. The unspoken assumption was that Federer would be there, too. Some determined or capricious souls sought to paint this as arrogance. But based on this week – based on this career – to pretend otherwise would be to insult our intelligence.

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