For the sixth time, that elusive Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal meeting at the US Open fell one match short of materializing. Juan Martin del Potro eliminated Federer in the quarterfinals Wednesday night with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 stunner.
He, not Federer, will play Nadal in the semis on Friday.
In a messy, scratchy, emotional teeter-totter of a match, Del Potro took advantage of a subpar Federer with dive-bombing serves and a forehand of death. And, for as often as Del Potro had to run around it or cheat to protect it, the backhand that's been weakened by his three left wrist surgeries held up admirably. It may not have been powerful, but it was steady and accurate; he committed just seven backhand errors, and burned Federer when the Swiss (wisely) approached to that wing, ripping six backhand passing-shot winners.
The big Argentine got stronger as the match went on, finally peaking in a near-flawless fourth set in which he cracked 12 winners and five aces, dropped just three service points, and committed only one unforced error.
Federer, on the other hand, never seemed to find a rhythm on Wednesday. His movement was a bit rigid and flat-footed. He frequently got himself caught in the wrong spot, hit a handful of puzzling approaches, and sent heaps of sitting mid-court forehands into the net. He had four set points in the third-set tiebreaker, but couldn't convert. He shanked a gimme of an overhead on his way to coughing up the lone service break in the fourth. Then, with Del Potro serving for the match, he worked a 30-all game, before playing a brilliant chip-and-charge point that produced a look at a routine forehand volley with the court wide open. He completely nuked it, and Del Potro closed the match on the following point.
Federer came into the tournament nursing a back injury, and never quite seemed to get healthy, slogging through some unsightly matches early on and needing medical timeouts even in the ones he dominated. After the loss, he told reporters he hadn't felt comfortable or confident on the court.
"Juan Martin fought like a lion so I'm fine," said Federer, who was bidding to win a third Grand Slam in his age-36 season, and a 20th Slam title overall.
"It should hurt, and it does, rightfully so, but, you know, I think my perspective at this age and with the season that I have had is easier to grasp faster, so I'll be fine quickly."
Two days ago, Del Potro was as good as out of this tournament, trailing Dominic Thiem two sets to love, and feeling so ill he considered retiring from the match. Buoyed by a vociferous crowd, he somehow recovered to win, saving two match points in the process, and now he's into his first major semifinal since Wimbledon in 2013. It's the first time he's made it this far in Flushing Meadows since he won his lone Slam title there - by beating Federer in a five-set epic - back in 2009.