A Grand Slam year that began with Roger Federer weeping uncontrollably after losing the Australian Open final ended here last night in more disappointment for the game's greatest player. Attempting to win the US Open for the sixth year in a row, Federer was beaten 3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 6-2 by Juan Martin del Potro, who claimed his first Grand Slam title after a roller-coaster of a final.
Del Potro, who will climb to No 5 in this week's updated world ranking list, has been threatening for the last year to make his Grand Slam breakthrough and showed remarkable resilience to resist the challenge of the French Open and Wimbledon champion.
Federer looked supremely confident at the start and seemed to be on the way to his 16th Grand Slam title when he led by two sets to one, but Del Potro fought back to win after more than four hours. It was Federer's third five-set Grand Slam final of the year following his defeat to Rafael Nadal in Melbourne and his victory over Andy Roddick at Wimbledon.
The world No 1 had won his previous 40 matches on these courts, with David Nalbandian, another Argentine, the last player to beat him here, in the fourth round six years ago. Guillermo Vilas, who won the US Open on clay 32 years ago, is the only other Argentine to have won the title here.
Del Potro, who was within two points of losing when he served at 4-5 and 15-30 in the fourth set, struck the ball with formidable power, using every inch of his 6ft 6in frame. The 20-year-old hit some huge forehands, though he was helped by a poor serving performance from Federer, who hit 11 double faults and only 13 aces. The Swiss played some of the big points poorly, converting only five of his 22 break points. Just as he did against Nadal in Australia, he played a particularly poor final set.
It was the third year in a row that Federer's final opponent here was a younger man playing in his first Grand Slam final, the Swiss having beaten both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in straight sets. Del Potro, however, provided a very different challenge. Federer had won all six of his previous meetings with Del Potro, although he came desperately close to losing to him in the French Open semi-finals earlier this year.
The match began in gloriously warm September sunshine, although a stiffening breeze caused more trouble as the match progressed. The 23,000-capacity crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium might have been expected to be on Federer's side, but there was plenty of support for Del Potro.
Both men were dressed all in black, but only one of them began in a mood that matched his attire. Del Potro looked sluggish, tense and uneasy and took a long time to find any rhythm in his shot-making. Any hopes Del Potro might have had that Federer would be similarly nervous were dispelled in the second game. The Argentine had already saved four break points, but on the fifth Federer hit a wonderful winner to take a 2-0 lead. Having been pulled out beyond the backhand tramlines by a firm Del Potro approach, Federer raced across to the other side of the court before cracking a superb forehand cross-court winner.
Del Potro raised hopes of a revival when he held serve from 0-40 down at 2-5, but two aces and a service winner saw Federer hold to 15 in the following game and take the first set in 40 minutes.
The second set could hardly have started more painfully for the Argentine, who dropped his serve to 15 after two double faults, but the pattern of the match turned three games later. Although Federer saved three break points to hold serve, Del Potro's confidence seemed to soar. Having looked tense and ponderous in the early stages, he was now moving much more freely.
Nevertheless, Federer was within two points of taking a two-set led when he served at 5-4, only for Del Potro to fight back and break serve for the first time with two successive forehand winners. The first came after Federer looked in disbelief at a Hawk-Eye ruling that the Argentine's shot had clipped the line. Only one point went against serve in the tie-break, Federer miscuing a forehand at 3-3, and Del Potro closed out the set with a smart inside-out forehand winner.
The third set went with serve until Del Potro broke in the seventh game when Federer hit a forehand long. The Swiss broke back immediately and then held for 5-4, but the tension was evident when he was involved in a tetchy exchange with the umpire, Jake Garner.
Federer complained that Del Potro was being given too much time after the end of points to make video replay challenges. Garner rejected the protest, upon which Federer told Garner: "Don't tell me to be quiet." Apparently referring to what Del Potro had said, Federer added: "I don't give a shit what he said." Nevertheless, it was Del Potro who lost his nerve in the next game. From 15-30 down he hit two double faults to hand Federer the set.
Del Potro drew first blood in the fourth, breaking Federer to love in the fourth game, only for the Swiss to break back for 4-4. Federer saved two break points at 5-5 and the set went into another tie-break. The Swiss served a double fault on the first point and Del Potro served out to take the match into a decider.
In comparison, the final set was a non-contest. Del Potro raced into a 3-0 lead and although Federer saved two match points when serving at 2-5 the Argentine was not to be denied. On the third, after Federer had double-faulted, the Swiss hit a backhand long to give Del Potro the greatest moment of his life.