Something beautiful is about to happen at the BNP Paribas Open, tennis’s “fifth major,” in the California desert. The invincible, seemingly ageless, Roger Federer is back in the final for the eighth time. He hasn’t lost a match yet this year.
Federer sprinted through the Australian Open two months ago without dropping a set en route to the final. He snagged his 20th grand slam title and regained the No. 1 ranking shortly thereafter, kicking off yet another Federer Moment after an astonishing 2017 season. It’s difficult not to root for Federer. You’d be cheering for an end to The Moment: the gushing about his late-career aggressiveness, the silkiness of his game, the likening his movement to ballet (or some other metaphor that can be traced back to David Foster Wallace).
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But the man who will stand across the net in Sunday’s final, Juan Martín del Potro, complicates the Federer allegiance, and the matchup gives us reason to ditch every thought of the calamitous dream that is 2018 and savor a tennis moment we may not see again.
Del Potro, the 29-year-old Argentine, got his 400th career win after Saturday’s semifinal against Canadian Milos Raonic, and is one of the few players in the world who can split a crowd in a Federer match up on U.S. soil. When the final gets underway, the Federer caps and the Swiss flags will be there, but so too will the Argentine flags, the olés, and the shrieks, Delpo!
Why? Because Juan Martin del Potro is irresistible. “The most beloved man in tennis,” as the Wall Street Journal aptly put it. From his enthralling style of play to his bashful, tender temperament off the court, he defies the stoic impenetrability often associated with tennis players and engages—no, thrives—off the crowd getting involved, inviting us all along for the ride.
Once the No. 4 player in the world, del Potro had three wrist surgeries that forced him out of the game for three years. It left his ranking hovering somewhere outside the top 1,000 and his backhand unreliable—he often opts for a neutralizing slice on the flank. But he eventually came back in 2016, exuberant and smiling, the sport’s emotional soft spot, with a forehand as ferocious as any shot on tour—100 miles-per-hour at last year’s U.S. Open—and a freewheeling style of play ripe for are-you-kidding-me comebacks the tennis world rarely sees.
My favorite thing about del Potro is not necessarily his gangly play though, it’s what happens after he wins. He throws his head back and slouches slightly as if to say, ‘Ah, what the hell? Let’s keep this party going.’ Every win is a gift to himself and a surprise to celebrate. He’s one of the sport’s greatest ‘What if?’ stories, so he swings without trepidation, willing the rest of us to do the same.
When he joins Federer in Stadium 1 (at 4 p.m. Eastern on ESPN), it will be their 25th meeting. Federer leads their series 18-6, with one of the losses coming in the quarterfinals of last year’s U.S. Open. Del Potro is currently ranked No. 8 in the world; Federer is the number one seed. Federer is the favorite, of course, but del Potro can win. He won six months ago, after a marathon five-set match in which he could barely stand when it was over. Tomorrow’s could be that kind of match, when both players relish in the victory. For either, it doesn’t feel like there’s any expectation anymore. Del Potro seems to recognize and cherish this. “If I had to take one match or one opponent to play in a final I would take Roger for sure,” he told reporters.
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And when it’s over, one of tennis’s greatest sportsman will give the other all the credit. They’ll finally rest and get ready to do it all over again. In the meantime, we can hope they continue meeting like this, because when they do, all the apocalyptic premonitions circling 2018 begin to fade. Everything is just fine.