<
>

Delpo's ad: Landing a blow for Argentina

BUENOS AIRES -- It was big history, written by a giant: On Monday, Argentinean Juan Martin del Potro became the new U.S. Open champion and first Latin American winner of the men's tournament since countryman Guillermo Vilas in 1977.

How many sensations and memories must be going through the head of the "Tower of Tandil," a skinny, 6-foot-6, good-natured kid who doesn't turn 21 until Sept. 23. He has become the fourth Argentinean to win a Grand Slam and the first to win one on a fast court since Vilas prevailed at the Australian Open in 1979, on grass. It was only fitting that Vilas witnessed del Potro's achievement at Flushing Meadows from one of the boxes at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Del Potro won the tournament he had been dreaming about since he was a kid, and he did it by defeating, in five sets, the No. 1 player in the world, Roger Federer. The Swiss, winner of a record 15 Grand Slam titles, was attempting to win his sixth straight Open, where he had an unbeaten record of 40 matches.

Just a day earlier, Delpo (as the big soccer and Boca Juniors fan is called) had given world No. 2 Rafael Nadal a memorable beating in straight sets. That's just one more reason del Potro has to keep reminding himself that this is actually happening.

In fact, the historic victory offers plenty to consider -- including its significance not only for tennis in Argentina, but for all Latin America. Del Potro, the No. 6-ranked player (who now has secured a return to the No. 5 spot), is the fourth player from his country to attain such an important title. Vilas won Roland Garros and the U.S. Open in '77, plus Australia in '78 and '79; Gabriela Sabatini won the U.S. Open in 1990; and Gaston Gaudio won the French Open in 2004.

Thus, in the men's category, del Potro is just the third Argentinean to claim a Grand Slam -- and the first to conquer Flushing's speedy concrete. (Vilas had won the New York tournament, but on the slow clay surfaces of Forest Hills in 1977.)

In del Potro's circle, there's one man who has been the key to his success, who is responsible for guiding and reassuring him. In just 14 months under Franco Davin, del Potro has climbed from No. 65 in the world to No. 5, and he is standing on firm ground to reach even higher. Davin also coached Gaudio when "El Gato" won in Paris five years ago.

It's no coincidence: Davin, a man of few words, helped del Potro take huge leaps of quality in barely more than a year. First, Delpo won his initial four titles in 2008 (all of them in a row), then made his debut in the quarterfinals of a major tournament at the U.S. Open last year. In 2009, he kept growing, winning another tournament in January, in Auckland, and again reaching the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, in Australia.

Del Potro kept on at a steady pace, with barely a pause, until he was able to defeat Nadal for the first time, in Miami. He has now beaten the Spaniard, a close friend, three times. Later, del Potro managed to reach a Grand Slam semifinal at Roland Garros (where he was edged out by Federer), defended the Washington Cup and played his first Masters 1000 Finals, falling to Andy Murray in Montreal. After finally reaching the championship round of a Grand Slam, del Potro won it in his first attempt.

Just as he does on the court, del Potro moved forward with big strides. Players don't often win their finals debut in a big tournament -- particularly when their opponent is none other than the great Federer. Having won 15 of 21 finals in majors, Fed previously had lost these kinds of decisive matches only to Nadal. What made the result all the more surprising was the fact that del Potro had lost his previous six matches against Federer, and only in their last encounter was the Argentinean able to snatch a set from him (two, actually).

That's why Federer was the clear favorite to win the tournament, after reaching the semifinals of his past 22 Grand Slams. With his intelligence, Federer traditionally has spun a web that was impossible for del Potro to sort out. Federer always worked with a sound strategy against the Argentinean, opening him up to the right with low shots and backhand slices, which are always complicated for such a tall player.

That's how Federer made del Potro suffer during this final, taking away his aggressiveness and speed. But this time the end of the story was different. Federer already had learned not to underestimate del Potro, especially after what he showed against Nadal. Delpo had an unsteady start, playing with understandable tension, and Federer took advantage during the first set.

By then, the dream del Potro had of being U.S. Open champion and earning his seventh tour title seemed all but unattainable. But in the second set, he woke up at a crucial moment, preventing Federer from serving his way into the second set with two potent parallel drives. It was then that Delpo got his hopes up and began a comeback that would thrill millions of fans, closing the set after a tight tiebreak.

Both players continued on with an array of fine shots and mistakes, until del Potro faltered again during a key moment in the third set. Once more at a disadvantage, he had to rise against arguably the best tennis player of all time -- the one del Potro has long dreamed of emulating.

In the fourth, the Argentinean let another important advantage get away, though he had a better pulse during the tiebreak. His drives, backhands and strong service, despite some ups and downs, carried the day. The last and decisive set finished quickly and sealed the most glorious day in del Potro's life. To break Federer's resistance as he did in the last chapter was nothing short of amazing.

Latin American tennis now celebrates a new hero's great deed, one that only a select few have accomplished. Better yet, del Potro is only 20 years old. His game still has room to grow, with more refined drop shots and corner shots to open the court potentially giving him more alternatives. Yet there's plenty of time to talk about his next moves. Now is the time for del Potro to pinch himself again and realize this beautiful dream is a tangible reality.

Gustavo Goitia is ESPNdeportes.com's tennis editor.