03:58 PM GMT March 18, 2018
Juan Martin del Potro has earned the missing prize in his trophy case.
In one of the best matches of the season, the Argentine erased three match points against five-time champion Roger Federer to win his maiden ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title 6-4, 6-7(8), 7-6(2) on Sunday at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
The odds were against the Argentine: Del Potro had lost 18 of 24 FedEx ATP Head2Head matchups against Federer heading into Sunday's final, their first meeting in a Masters 1000 title match. Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had won 13 of the past 14 Indian Wells titles, dating back to 2004, and Del Potro had lost his three previous Masters 1000 finals: 2009 Montreal (l. to Murray), 2013 Indian Wells (l. to Nadal), and 2013 Shanghai (l. to Djokovic).
But the Argentine had come through more often than not against Federer in tour-level title matches (now 4-2), and he never went away against Federer on a court where the Swiss has enjoyed so much success.
“It's so big,” Del Potro said of winning his first Masters 1000 title. “I cannot believe I won this tournament, beating Roger in a great final and level of tennis. We played great tennis today.
“I'm No. 6 in the world, I think? Which is so good to me. And I'm excited to keep working... I just want to keep winning titles like this if I can.”
Federer, the No. 1 player in the ATP Rankings, has won five Indian Wells titles and was trying to break away from Djokovic and stand alone with his sixth title in the Coachella Valley. Federer was also looking to close the Masters 1000 title gap between himself (27) and Djokovic and Nadal (30).
Instead, Del Potro hoisted his first Masters 1000 title and his 22nd tour-level crown, and he won it with force and finesse. Federer targeted Del Potro's backhand in the opener, but the Argentine replied every time, and often with power, passing Federer on one surprise trip to the net.
“It's day-by-day work. I'm confident with my two-handed backhand but not confident enough to play what I like to play,” Del Potro said. “But the most important improvement to what I'm doing is in my returns. I always return with my two-handed backhand. After that, I can take the control of the point. And that is a big change to me because I'm not running too much. That's the big difference between my game at this moment to a few years ago.”
Del Potro had Federer on the run, pounding his forehand and stringing Federer from side to side as the Swiss struggled to find his own forehand. Federer finished the opener with 11 winners but also 11 unforced errors, including eight from his forehand wing.
But in the first game of the second set, the 27-time Masters 1000 champion pumped himself up and saved two break points. Federer tried to drag Del Potro away from his comfort zone and closer to the net, but the 6'6” right-hander looked as comfortable there as he did behind the baseline.
Watch Del Potro's My Story
The Argentine earned match point on Federer's racquet in the second-set tie-break, at 7/8, but he netted a forehand. And after Federer evened the match, Del Potro was visibly frustrated.
“It was horrible moment for me. I was still thinking about my forehand miss and my forehand error, mistake in the match point. And, I mean, it's my shot, you know, my forehand from that side of the court. I never miss that forehand,” Del Potro said, smiling.
Yet he didn't let it show on the scoreboard as he held serve and stayed even with the five-time champion. At 4-4, however, Federer broke for a chance to serve for the match, and it looked as if his comeback would be complete in minutes.
But this time it was Del Potro's turn to save match points. He erased three during Federer's 5-4 service game, including two consecutively from 15/40 down. He and Federer then both held, and they headed to a tie-break, where Federer lost his way. The Swiss hit two double faults, and Del Potro sprinted to the title, lifting his arms when Federer struck another forehand long.
“I lost my serve a little bit, and then he was clean and I wasn't. And then it goes very quickly in the breaker,” Federer said. “As close as it can be sometimes when you're not feeling it or momentum has shifted, it's just crazy how it can go the other way. But I had already missed my opportunities then, but I still, standing at the trophy ceremony, I think I would like to play that tie-break again, because I don't know what the hell happened. But it's OK. It happens sometimes.”
Federer's unbeaten streak to start 2018 is over, but the Swiss, at 36, still accomplished his longest win streak to start a season (17). His previous best had been 16 wins in 2006, when he was 24 years old. Federer will also stay No. 1 in the ATP Rankings through the Miami Open presented by Itau, which starts Thursday. For finishing runner-up, he will receive 600 ATP Rankings points and $654,380 in prize money.
Del Potro, meanwhile, pushes his own winning streak to 11 matches, dating back to his Abierto Mexican Telcel presentado por HSBC title in Acapulco earlier this month. Del Potro, No. 6 in the ATP Rankings, will receive 1,000 ATP Rankings points and $1,340,860 in prize money.
“It was an unbelievable match in all the ways. I mean, we played a great level of tennis. The people were excited on every single point,” Del Potro said. “Roger and me were nervous during the whole match, and we felt that on court... Unfortunately I couldn't stay calm in the tie-break of the second set, but then the calms come again in the end of the match and I played good in the tie-break.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Del Potro is the first Argentine to win the BNP Paribas Open in tournament history (since 1976). He's also the first South American titlist in Indian Wells since Chile's Marcelo Rios in 1998.