Two unexpected champions celebrated victories at one of the game’s most popular tournaments
By Chris Lewis
There were times when Juan Martín del Potro, a 2009 U.S. Open champion, had every reason to give up. After undergoing four wrist surgeries, he was unable to compete in 14 majors between 2010 and 2015. The pain was so excruciating he even considered retiring. But his passion for the game and his desire to compete against the world’s best was more resilient than his pain.
When he first chose to make a comeback, he questioned his decision. He struggled to find his form, as his once reliable two-handed backhand was no longer feared by his competition. His passion was still considerable, but his body simply wasn’t dependable enough.
That all changed March 18, 2018, the day he defeated Roger Federer to claim his first Masters 1000 title at the BNP Paribas Open. Practically no one—aside from perhaps del Potro and his friends and family—believed he would win such a significant tournament so soon.
But the 29-year-old showed no signs of past injuries against Federer, whom he had also defeated during the finals of the 2009 U.S. Open. Not only did he win the match 6-4, 6-7 (8-10), 7-6 (7-2), he also ended the world No. 1’s 17-match winning streak, resulting in Federer’s first loss of the 2018 season.
“Juan Martín was a bit better at the end,” Federer said. “It’s a tough loss, but I still had a good week. I’m happy for him.”
An Unbelievable Match
Prior to the loss, Federer, the defending champion, was seeking his sixth BNP Paribas Open title, an all-time record. On the other hand, del Potro was competing in his first BNP Paribas Open finals match since 2013, when he lost to Rafael Nadal. Federer was also 18-6 against del Potro at the time, but one of those losses included that 2009 finals defeat at the U.S. Open.
By the time the two-hour, 42-minute match ended, del Potro was standing with the trophy and reflecting on all the obstacles he had overcome to earn his first Masters 1000 title in his 51st attempt.
“It was worth everything I’ve been through to experience this moment,” he said, speaking in front of the record crowd of 18,347 at Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
As the No. 8 seeded Argentine considered the impact of the match, he was nearly at a loss for words. “It was an unbelievable match. It’s difficult to describe. It’s like a dream.”
Despite his 18-7 record against Federer, he has won four of the six finals matches that the duo has completed so far. And after so many years away from the limelight, it appears del Potro, who has now claimed 11 straight match victories, is ready to contend for majors once again. After all, he beat Federer in the quarterfinals of last year’s U.S. Open as well.
“I’m excited to see what’s next,” he says. “I’m still surprising myself, and I want to keep surprising the tennis tour.”
This year’s BNP Paribas Open women’s champion, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, also shocked tennis fans. On the way to victory and the first tittle of her career, she not only defeated fellow 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina of Russia 6-3, 6-2 in the finals match, she also claimed match wins against Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova.
In spite of her loss, Kasatkina’s week was nearly as impressive. Ranked No. 19 in the world prior to the BNP Paribas Open, she defeated Caroline Wozniacki, Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber and Sloane Stephens during the two-week tournament. That performance raises her to No. 11 in the world.
On the other hand, Osaka, a native of Japan, will rise 22 spots in the world ranking—all the way to No. 22. The rise was well earned as she defeated Kasatkina in just 70 minutes. Renowned for her groundstrokes, which are typically high-powered, Osaka decided to not utilize them as often. Instead, she took a more relaxed approach to her finals match, a method that clearly worked.
“I wasn’t trying to hit hard today because I felt like it would be better for [Daria] to take my pace. I was just going to sit back and see what she does,” Osaka says. “I wasn’t that aggressive. I was just more consistent.”
Kasatkina, who has defeated every reigning Grand Slam champion over the past year, says Osaka outplayed her, adding that her loss was, to a degree, at least, due to exhaustion.
“I was pretty tired after the match against Venus on Friday,” she says. “Physically, I could do better. But Naomi was much better today than me, so she really deserved to win.”
In addition to playing a more reserved game, Osaka also appeared very calm during her finals match, another technique she believes was useful throughout her dominating performance.
“I was extremely nervous, but my plan was to fake that I was very calm,” she says. “I couldn’t afford to lose points based on nerves. I knew [Daria] would fight for every point.”
For more information on the 2018 BNP Paribas Open, visit bnpparibasopen.com
Chris Lewis is a staff writer with Desert Golf & Tennis