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By Chris Oddo | Sunday March 18, 2018

Juan Martin del Potro’s endearing and enduring comeback continues to be one of the more uplifting stories in tennis. And on Sunday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden the Argentine added another poignant layer to an inspiring story that has seen him comeback from four surgeries to his wrists (three on the left and one on the right) in a five-year period by stunning tennis’ most decorated player in a three-set thriller for the ages.

More: Osaka Defeats Kasatkina for Maiden Title at Indian Wells

Del Potro saved three championship points to win a heated, edgy battle with Roger Federer, 6-4, 6-7(8), 7-6(2), earning his first Masters 1000 title and denying the Swiss legend the right to stand alone as the tournament’s all-time title leader.

The 29-year-old becomes the first player from Argentina to ever win this title, and the first from South America to win at Indian Wells in 20 years.

It was a see-saw battle that boiled over at times into an emotional, angst-ridden battle of wills.

Both players took issue with umpire Fergus Murphy at different junctures during the match, with Federer calling out the umpire on what he perceived to be poor calls and errors in judgment, and Del Potro repeatedly asking for Murphy to warn the crowd to keep quiet between his first and second serves.

Both players blew off quite a bit of steam that way, and their antics got quite a bit of buzz on social media and from the commentators, but neither seemed to make any headway with Murphy.

They didn’t make much headway against one another on the court either, as this contest was close from start to finish and rarely did it devolve into sloppiness. The tennis was feverish. Electric at times, divine at others and just plain angry every so often.

Del Potro was focused from the start and he took advantage of a hiccup from Federer to claim a break at love in the fifth game of the first set. It was more than enough to get him through the opener, as he dropped just six points on serve and did not face a break point.

The second set saw Federer’s intensity rise to a jaw-dropping level (his movement was particularly stunning on this sunny Sunday in the California desert), while Del Potro relied on timely tennis and gut punches to keep level. The Argentine saved a pair of set points to hold at 5-all, one of them a vintage forehand that was struck courageously and with complete conviction.

Remarkably, Del Potro saved three consecutive set points in the second-set breaker, then a fourth, and he even earned himself a championship point to finish off Federer in straights.

In between barking insults at umpire Murphy, Del Potro saved the first two set points with unreturnable serves, then things got even more complicated when Federer appeared to hit an ace on the ensuing point, but after a lengthy delay a challenge revealed that the serve missed.

Now it was Federer’s turn to go sour, and he got even angrier after he double-faulted to even the score at 6-6, because he felt that he was made to wait too long between serves as the ballboys shifted and Del Potro walked towards his chair during the challenge.

“The gloves are off now,” said Robbie Koenig gleefully while commentating the match for Tennis TV.

Federer aced Del Potro for 7-6, but Del Potro saved the fourth set point of the breaker and won the next point on serve to earn a first championship point.

Del Potro had his shot on the next point, but he netted a regulation forehand to give Federer the lifeline he needed. It was an easy miss that he later said haunted him well into the third set. Federer forced a forehand error on the next point and leveled the match (on his seventh set point) on the next point when Del Potro nudged a volley long.

It was only natural that a lull would come next and it did, with both players holding through to 4-4 in the decider; the calm before the storm.

Del Potro needed another clutch forehand to save a break point at 4-all, but a surly Federer kept up the pressure and broke to snap Del Potro’s streak of 32 consecutive holds on the next point.

Moments later, with Federer serving at 5-4, 40-15, it seemed all but over.

It was not.

A determined Del Potro saved three championship points and then rocketed a 105 MPH forehand on his second break point of the game to level at 5-all.

In keeping with the recurring theme of animosity in this match, Del Potro’s first break point, which ended with Federer firing a backhand into the body of the Argentine from in close at the net, escalated the intensity even further. Federer’s advance drew a long look from Del Potro who turned to glare as the Swiss sauntered back to the baseline.

That would be the last of the fireworks, as both players held serve to force a tiebreaker and Del Potro dominated from that point on thanks to some scratchy play by Federer. The Argentine rushed out to a 5-1 lead and converted his third championship point when a Federer forehand sailed beyond the baseline.

Federer drops to 1-8 lifetime in deciding set tiebreakers with the loss.

It was a match that had everything. And it was one that meant everything to Del Potro. Two years ago he was here at Indian Wells, at the beginning of his comeback, unable to hit a topspin backhand and just happy to be back in the game. There was doubt that he would ever return to the top of tennis, or even remain healthy long enough to have a shot.

Over the past two years he has never lost that appreciation for how far he’s had to come to be back inside the Top 10 and competing for the biggest trophies in the sport.

Del Potro and Federer exchanged a heartfelt handshake and hug at the net, seemingly forgetting how desperately they wanted to defeat one another just moments ago. During the match and in its aftermath these two delivered the goods. A highly combustible contest ended in an emotional celebration for one of tennis’ sentimental favorites, even if it was bittersweet for the 36-year-old Federer.

As Del Potro wandered off to his chair he took the magic marker to sign the camera lens and etched the name “Cesar,” to honor his recently departed canine. It was a fitting moment, a look inside the big-hearted psyche of one of the most powerful players in tennis.

One minute he’s a giant. The next a gentle giant.


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