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09.15.09

Upset for the Ages

A tournament full of surprises ended with the biggest one of all—an unknown Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro, stopped the championship machine Roger Federer in a five-set thriller. Pop culture critic—and tennis buff—Toure takes in the scene.

As the electrified throng walked out of Arthur Ashe stadium and into the night having seen a far better and more suspenseful match than anyone had expected, the PA played “Oh, What A Night,” by the Four Seasons. That schmaltzy pop song is played at many weddings and bat mitzvahs but when it’s been a truly astounding evening that song can be just right.

The crowd was still stunned that someone many of them had not heard of two weeks ago had beaten the man who is possibly the greatest player ever as he was trying to win his sixth consecutive US Open title. In the tunnel outside the suites I saw Federer’s wife Mirka Vavrinec with his friends, the married rock stars Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefani, all of them walking slowly, heads down, the blood drawn from their faces as if in a funeral march. No one was dead but a funny thing had had happened on the way to the coronation.

Two and a half hours earlier the ending—the 20 year-old mercurial Argentinian first-time Slam finalist Juan Martin del Potro over the legendary 15-time Grand Slam champ Roger Federer 3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2—had seemed beyond improbable. An hour into the match the great Federer, our Nureyev, who glides around the court, was up a set and a break, 6-3, 5-3, with a frustrated del Potro shrugging to his coach as if to say “What can I do?” We see that befuddled look whenever Federer plays.

I saw Federer’s wife Mirka Vavrinec with his friends, the married rock stars Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefani, all of them walking slowly, heads down, the blood drawn from their faces as if in a funeral march.

See, the racket is meant to be an extension of your hand. It’s sort of a flat, rounded, virtual hand. And no one seems to match the full range of possibility from the hand-as-racket as Federer. In that early going he was a magician, a trickster, placing the ball wherever, spanking it with power then caressing it for touch, hitting behind the back and threatening another shot through the legs, the shot he made so beautifully against Djokovic in the semis.

Full U.S. Open coverage.The only aspect of tennis Federer isn’t exceptional at is call challenging. He doesn’t like the challenge system—didn’t want it implemented in the first place and isn’t good at using it—and he surely won’t like it any more after this match. Federer was up 5-4 in the 2nd when del Porto hit one of his screaming forehands that CBS estimates travels over 100 mph. It’s called out but del Potro challenges and it’s overturned. Federer goes over to the line, finds a mark outside the line, points it out, and looks at the umpire as if this is superseding evidence. He loses that argument and the game. In the next game, as he prepares to return serve near the spot he points at it again, still nagged by the moment. During that span Federer lost six points in a row, thrusting the men into a tiebreaker del Potro would win, swelling him with confidence. His monster forehand emerged around then. He rips the cover off the ball when he’s set up, true screamers that go for clear winners more than 40 times today.

In the third set there’s more of Federer’s frustration with the challenge system. After Federer wins to go up 5-4, as they walk to their chairs, del Potro talks to the umpire, unsure if he should challenge the last call. This isn’t unusual, the ump often seems to want to tell the players how certain he is about a call if they’re uncertain whether or not to challenge, as if he’s advising them. But that leads to del Potro taking more than the brief, expected amount of time before deciding to and being granted a challenge. This leads to an outburst that’s polite by Serena’s standards but is an all-out tantrum by Federer’s. As he sat in his chair he jawed at the umpire and shook his head no, complaining, “Are there any rules here?” He told the ump that earlier in the tournament he hadn’t been allowed to challenge because he’d waited too long. So why was del Potro allowed to wait so long? The ump told him to be quiet, which the sport’s biggest icon did not appreciate.

“Don’t tell me to be quiet, ok,” he said. “When I wanna talk I talk.” He had no rage, no brattyness, but rather the perturbed, annoyed air of a powerful man not getting justice. He said some more then said, “Don’t fucking talk to me.” Federer won the next game and the set but something may have changed there because Federer would not win another set in this tournament. But while del Potro served around 75%, Federer made less than 50% of his first serves on this day. That’s called beating yourself.

Federer’s matches usually have the inevitability of a serial killer movie where you know a moment of placidity will be followed by the killer sneaking up behind the girl and slashing her throat. Federer will be smoothing along through a match, letting you think you’re in it and then, like Jordan, like Kobe, he’ll find a critical moment, step on the gas and suddenly ten consecutive points have been lost and you’re out of it. You’re dead. So all through the fourth and fifth set I awaited the arrival of the killer. But he never came.

Del Potro is now the tallest man to ever win a Slam because height is a gift and a curse in tennis. After 6’3” it becomes more of a hindrance than a help because even though height enables big serving, it makes movement tougher. Guys who are 6’4” or 6’5” often find the points they win through big serves are fewer than those they lose when they get into rallies and are unable to move as well as guys who are closer to 6-feet tall. Tennis is a game of quickness, sharp direction changes, and little steps and tall guys tend not to be as good at those things as their shorter brothers. But del Potro is an anomaly. He has excellent mobility and agility for a tall guy. Some tall players like 6’5” Mark Phillippoussis seem to lumber around the court but del Potro moves like a smaller man while he serves like a big man and uses his long arms to wind up and hit that monster forehand.

All that is why he’ll be a star for years to come. The top rung of tennis—Federer and Nadal—has been joined. But today Federer lost a winnable match. He beat himself. The final game was an encapsulation: Federer, serving at 2-5, blows two easy backhands and an easy forehand to reach 15-40. He fends off the match points and gets to game point but is stymied by a big del Potro forehand. At deuce the great one double faults to reach match point for a third time. On this one del Potro angles Federer off the court—pushing him into defense—and then uses one last big forehand to create a Federer error.

That’s when del Potro laid flat on the court, as much in shock as anyone in the stadium.

Touré is a columnist for The Daily Beast. He's also an NBC contributor and the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid, Soul City, and The Portable Promised Land . He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, was CNN's first pop culture correspondent, and was the host of MTV2's Spoke N Heard . His writing has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times.