In a setting more befitting a World Cup soccer final, the raucous gallery cheered blossoming Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro to a stunning 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3) quarterfinal victory over world's No. 1 Rafael Nadal at the Sony Ericsson Open on Thursday evening.
Nadal, normally a crowd favorite, was wearing the black hat in the three-hour marathon that featured the bludgeoning forehand of the 6-foot-6 Del Potro against the Spaniard's uncanny defensive prowess in which he often turns opponent's winners into winners for himself.
Nadal, 22, was coming off a title at Indian Wells, but he was unable to pull off the difficult Masters series doubleheader. It seemed he had the match in his grip when he jumped out to a double-break 3-0 lead in the third set. But then Nadal, who normally protects leads like a mother hen guards her chicks, unraveled and lost 12 of 14 points to help Del Potro back in the match.
"When it was 3-0 it was an amazing tragedy,'' Nadal said. "I don't usually lose a two-break lead in the third set on hard courts. He's seventh in the world, but I don't think he played an unbelievable match.''
At 6-5 in the third set, Del Potro, 20, called for a trainer to treat what seemed to be a cramp in his left leg. The speedy Nadal had to fight off three match points in the ensuing 12th game, with the last one saved by a 131 mph ace, one of the fastest serves of his career.
But in the taut tiebreaker with the Argentine fans waving their blue and white flags while bellowing, "Del-Po, Del-Po!' to drown out the scattered chants of "Ra-fa'' from the South Florida Spanish contingent,
"Maybe it was wonderful for the crowd but terrible for me,'' Nadal said. "I think I played very bad all the time. That's the truth of the match.''
Nadal jumped to a 3-2 lead when his return of serve dribbled over the net for a winner.
Del Potro, who achieved his first career victory over a top three player, bent at the knees in despair. But Nadal, who had 41 unforced errors, hit a backhand in the alley for 3-3. Then the turning point of the tiebreaker followed as both players exchanged laser-like ground strokes during an interminable rally, before Del Potro nailed a cold-blooded forehand winner down the line for one of his 34 winners.
Nadal, who falls to 24-3 this year, didn't get another point and ended the match with a weak forehand into the net.The players hugged at the net, and soon after an exhausted Del Potro was draped in an Argentine flag, waving to his fans that made Crandon Park seem more like downtown Buenos Aires.
Nadal wouldn't blame the back-to-back grueling Masters events on hard courts for his uneven play and inability to win in Miami (he has two runner-up finishes). But it has clearly taken its toll.
Del Potro, who was 0-4 against Nadal, will play the winner of the Andy Murray-Fernando Verdasco match in Friday's semifinals. He has reached the quarterfinals or better in all six tournaments he's played in this year, including his fifth ATP title in Auckland. Del Potro, ranked sixth in the world will be playing in his first Master' semifinal and has never advanced past the quarters in a Grand Slam. He is assured of moving up to at least No. 5 in the rankings next week.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun